Gordon, John Campbell (1847–1934), 7th earl of Aberdeen and 1st marquess of Aberdeen and Temair , lord lieutenant of Ireland, was born 3 August 1847 in Edinburgh, third son and fourth of six children of George John Hamilton-Gordon (1816–64), 5th earl of Aberdeen in the peerage of Scotland and 2nd Viscount Gordon in the United Kingdom peerage, and his wife, Mary, née Baillie (d. 1900). His paternal grandfather, also George Hamilton-Gordon, 4th earl of Aberdeen (1784–1860), was a leading Peelite conservative and prime minister (1852–5). Campbell liked to recall that one of his maternal ancestors had been a covenanting martyr while a paternal ancestor was executed for royalism; he saw this blended ancestry as symbolising his mission of national reconciliation.
Family background and influences
A strain of religiously influenced melancholia ran through the family. Gordon's grandfather lost his first wife and three daughters to tuberculosis (this may have influenced Gordon's later support for his wife's anti-TB campaigns), was permanently marked by witnessing the battle of Leipzig in 1813, and at the end of his life was haunted by guilt at his failure to prevent the Crimean War; while making preparations to construct a chapel on his Haddo estate, the ex-prime minister left directions that it should be built by his successor, quoting the biblical account of David stating that he was unfit to build the Temple of the Lord ‘because I am a man of blood’. (It was Gordon who completed the chapel.) His father suffered from chronic ill health and a consuming religious puritanism which expressed itself in the distribution of large sums of money among the poor and, less attractively, in forbidding his children to tell jokes, engage in private theatricals (which had been a hobby of the prime minister), or use toys except those which they made themselves. Gordon had a much closer and more affectionate relationship with his mother. He was educated at a small private school run by Rev. G. T. Renaud, vicar of Clandown, Somerset (1858–60), at Cheam school (1860–62), and at St Andrews University (1863–6); he graduated MA from University College, Oxford in 1877.
Gordon's second brother died in a shooting accident in 1868, while the eldest brother, George (who succeeded their father as 6th earl in 1864), had gone to live in America, where he worked as a sea captain under a false name and was drowned at sea in 1870. This appears to have reflected both a desire to escape the responsibilities of landownership – their father occasionally fantasised about emigrating to Australia under an assumed name – and a love of technical pursuits which also recurred in the family. Gordon had a lifelong fascination with railway technology: he served on two house of lords commissions on railways, and liked to imitate a train whistle at parties. His second son, Dudley, chose to become an engineer rather than going to university.
Because of initial uncertainty about his brother's fate and the need to confirm that the 6th earl had died without marrying (since Scottish marriage law was then extremely informal, even a casual liaison might have produced a plausible claimant), Gordon was not formally recognised as 7th earl of Aberdeen until 1872. He inherited a Scottish estate of 75,000 acres with an annual rent roll of £40,000.
Aberdeen initially sat on the conservative benches in the Lords. In 1877, however, he married Ishbel Maria Marjoribanks (Ishbel Gordon (qv)), ten years his junior, the youngest daughter of Sir Dudley Coutts Marjoribanks, later 1st Lord Tweedmouth. The marriage was to a considerable extent the result of her initiative; he was brought to propose after being accused of trifling with her affections when he told her that he felt only friendship for her, and after sending her an affectionate letter was so panic-stricken that he sought the postmaster general's permission to retrieve it from a postbox. He was greatly influenced by her strong liberal convictions. The couple had three sons and two daughters.
Ishbel was clearly the dominant partner in the marriage, and Aberdeen tended to be overshadowed by her (there have been three biographies of her and none of him). This has led to his being seen as somewhat ridiculous and henpecked, though it should be noted that their relationship seems to have been happy and his life appears fortunate in comparison with those of his brothers and precursors in the title. While the Aberdeens engaged jointly in social work throughout their careers, this is associated mostly with Ishbel because she was in fact more active and talented as an organiser and because such matters were seen as of primarily female concern. (They are therefore covered in her entry in this volume.) It should be noted, however, that Aberdeen's interest in such matters was not entirely due to her – he engaged in social work for the poor of the East End of London for some years before their marriage – and was influenced by his family's traditions of religiously inspired charity and paternalistic landlordism.
Aberdeen publicly opposed Disraeli's conservative government over the Afghan and Zulu wars and assisted W. E. Gladstone in his 1879 Midlothian campaign (although Gladstone's opponent for the Midlothian seat was his cousin by marriage). In March 1880 he formally took the liberal whip, and after Gladstone's victory in the general election of that year was appointed lord lieutenant of Aberdeenshire. Gladstone frequently stayed at the Aberdeens' house in the London suburbs, Dollis Hill; his partiality for the Aberdeens was influenced by Ishbel's hospitality, by their shared Christian faith, and by memories of Aberdeen's grandfather, who had been a close personal as well as political associate.
Aberdeen was lord high commissioner to the general assembly of the Church of Scotland (1881–5) (a position to which he returned in 1915). His term of office was marked by attempts to draw together the different strands of Scottish social and political opinion by lavish entertainments and attempts to act as a catalyst for improved relations between the Church of Scotland and the Free Church (whose secession in 1843 had been accompanied by intense bitterness). This period also saw the relaxation of the Aberdeens’ gloomy and somewhat priggish evangelicalism under the influence of the liberal theologian Henry Drummond, who preached the reconciliation of Christianity and science through a somewhat nebulous creed of general benevolence and work for human progress. Drummond's relationship with Ishbel was so close that one of her biographers (Doris French) has suggested that they were lovers; this is merely an inference, and it is equally possible that their relationship was that of spiritual adviser and advisee (a form of companionship which can often develop quasi-erotic undertones). Whatever the nature of the relationship, Aberdeen treated Drummond with the greatest affection, often sneaking away and leaving him to manage entertainments or other projects hatched by Ishbel. In later life Ishbel spoke of her gratitude for Aberdeen's ‘blessed lack of jealousy in his composition’ over her friendships with Drummond and other male co-workers.
Under Drummond's influence, the Aberdeens’ sensibility and political style developed into what might be called a ‘Kailyard’ manner. Late Victorian Scottish literature was dominated by the sentimental glorification of an idealised small-town or rural lifestyle in which the hard edges of social, doctrinal, and political controversy (and the increasingly urban and industrialised nature of Scottish society) were smoothed over by sentimental benevolence underpinned by a non-specific religious faith. The Aberdeens’ self-conscious paternalism towards their tenants and servants, and their belief in smoothing social divisions through humour, public entertainment, and social work, reflected the ethos which Kailyard literature enjoined on ‘lairds’. The Kailyard sensibility was linked to a Gladstonian liberal politics of moral uplift (Aberdeen spoke of liberalism as ‘the Christianity of politics’ – We twa, i, 272) and to a theologically liberal reaction against Calvinism. As part of his generally aural sensibility Aberdeen loved organ music: he installed and played one at his (nondenominational) private chapel at a time when many presbyterians opposed instrumental music in worship. He also loved the theatre – despised by strict evangelicals – and was proud to have been a pallbearer at the funeral in 1905 of the great actor Sir Henry Irving. Aberdeen emphasised the theatre's moral and educational value and believed it should be purified of ‘detrimental’ elements. The Aberdeens’ two volumes of co-authored reminiscences, We twa (1925) and More cracks with we twa (1929), can be seen as examples of Kailyard literature, as can Aberdeen's Tell me another (1925), a joke collection aimed at dispelling the view that humour must necessarily be ‘broad’. The Aberdeens expressed admiration for such Kailyard writers as Ian McLaren and J. M. Barrie, though Aberdeen was infuriated by the widespread perception that Barrie's play The admirable Crichton (1902) was a satirical portrait of their own dealings with their servants.
First viceroyalty of Ireland
In February 1886 Aberdeen was appointed lord lieutenant of Ireland under Gladstone's third administration. He had long believed that some form of home rule was desirable; he accepted the post without consulting Ishbel, who was initially dismayed. As the first pro-home rule lord lieutenant, Aberdeen was welcomed by large crowds when he arrived in Dublin on 20 February 1886. A political novice, he remained dependent on Gladstone for advice, and the chief secretary, John Morley (qv), excluded him from any active role in the Irish administration. Aware of his marginalisation, Aberdeen later wrote that he never felt that he had won the confidence of Charles Stewart Parnell (qv), while unionist politicians distrusted him completely. The Aberdeens excelled, however, in capturing public sentiment. Aberdeen sat on the Mansion House platform at a meeting called by the lord mayor of Dublin, T. D. Sullivan (qv), to discuss the relief of distress in the west; his shaking hands with Michael Davitt (qv) when they were introduced was treated as a symbol of national reconciliation, and the Aberdeens’ popularity with nationalist opinion was confirmed by the donation of £1,500 for famine relief and £500 to Dublin slum charities and by some provincial tours. His tenure of office was brief, as Gladstone's ministry fell in July 1886, but the Aberdeens had found another focus for their paternalist instincts and were to take an interest in Irish affairs for the remainder of their lives. A world tour undertaken for the sake of Lady Aberdeen's health in 1887 was punctuated by addresses of welcome from Irish communities in Australasia and North America, and during the political campaigns of the late 1880s Aberdeen frequently spoke jointly with nationalist MPs at liberal rallies as a symbol of the potential for home rule to bring a ‘Union of Hearts’ between Britain and Ireland.
Governor general of Canada
With the return of he liberals to power in 1893, Aberdeen was appointed governor general of Canada after Morley insisted that he should not return to the Irish lord lieutenancy. In this post, which he held until 1898, he attracted further controversy by his handling of the prime ministerial succession after the death of Sir John Thompson in 1894, and by his refusal to allow the outgoing conservative prime minister, Sir Charles Tupper, to make official appointments after his defeat in the 1895 general election. It has been suggested that Aberdeen, at Ishbel's direction, manipulated these events to assist the political victory of Wilfrid Laurier's liberals; Tupper described him as ‘a weak and incapable governor, under the control of an ambitious and meddlesome woman’ (Keane, 73). Aberdeen's term of office was marked by extensive charitable work and by disastrous land investments in British Columbia, partly aimed at providing support for Ishbel's feckless brothers (whom he subsidised after they were disowned by their father). The family estate was also depleted throughout Aberdeen's life by the effects of agricultural depression and falling rents and by the cost of official entertainments and charitable activities.
Second viceroyalty of Ireland
In December 1905 Aberdeen was reappointed lord lieutenant of Ireland in the administration of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman (qv) and remained in office until February 1915, enjoying the longest term ever of any lord lieutenant. He was generally overshadowed by his wife, whom he supported in her social campaigns, including programmes to relieve poverty in the west and improve women's health facilities. In July 1907, while Aberdeen hosted a visit by Edward VII and Queen Alexandra, the theft of the Irish crown jewels was discovered. The dismissal of Sir Arthur Vicars (qv), Ulster king at arms, led to a long-running scandal as Vicars continued to protest his innocence and was volubly supported by his brother-in-law, Pierce O'Mahony (qv). Aberdeen was severely embarrassed by persistent though apparently unfounded rumours – widely repeated by radical nationalists – that his nondescript eldest son, Lord Haddo, had been involved in the theft. (Later suggestions that Aberdeen himself was homosexual and engaged in a cover-up of the theft rest on no more evidence than contemporary claims by a demented barrister called Wallace that Aberdeen and Augustine Birrell (qv) had personally stolen the jewels.)
Aberdeen was widely seen as incarnating a slightly shabby Victorian respectability, and the impression of absurdity he projected was intensified by the presence of an enormous menagerie of cats, dogs, and goats at the viceregal lodge and by his increasingly pronounced nervous mannerisms; his constant shifting from one leg to another brought him the derogatory nickname ‘Jumping Jack’. The threadbare nature of his official entertainments (owing to financial problems) was contrasted with the lavish hospitality of his independently wealthy predecessor Lord Dudley (qv), and a boycott of the viceregal court by unionist gentry led to its being associated with socially ambitious middle-class catholics (often involved in Lady Aberdeen's charitable activities). The choleric presbyterian home ruler Rev. J. B. Armour (qv), whom Aberdeen appointed as one of his chaplains, heaped scorn on presbyterian unionists (including some of Aberdeen's own chaplains) for shunning a devoutly presbyterian viceroy after dancing attendance on his anglican (and often irreligious or otherwise disreputable) predecessors, remarking that Aberdeen was the first viceroy to celebrate presbyterian services in the lodge and that he gave more official patronage to Ulster presbyterians than they had received for a hundred years. (Armour recognised, however, that the Aberdeens were disadvantaged by overweening sentimentality and Ishbel's officiousness.)
Aberdeen was involved in campaigns against allegedly indecent literature in both Britain and Ireland; in 1912 he lent his patronage to the newly founded and predominantly catholic Irish Vigilance Association (whose newspaper-burning and boycotting activities frightened Maunsel & Co. into breaking their agreement to publish James Joyce's (qv) Dubliners). In 1909, however, Aberdeen was outmanoeuvred and humiliated by W. B. Yeats (qv) and Lady Gregory (qv) over the Abbey Theatre's premiere of G. B. Shaw's (qv) ‘The shewing-up of Blanco Posnet’, the performance of which had been prohibited in Britain by the lord chamberlain. He appears to have been handicapped on this occasion by his dislike of conflict and by the mistaken belief that Gregory would share his sense of aristocratic propriety.
Aberdeen's attempts to serve as mediator in labour conflicts had little success. In 1906 he was widely denounced by trade unionists for calling on striking Belfast textile workers to return to work. An attempt to repeat his gesture towards Davitt by meeting James Larkin (qv) in 1909 made no impression on Larkin, who later publicly suggested that they should personally practise Ishbel's advice about how a family of five could live on 8/6 a week; the meeting also reinforced the belief of Arthur Griffith (qv) that Larkinism was clandestinely organised by Britain to undermine Irish industry. In 1913 Aberdeen made representations to employers during the Dublin lockout in an effort to solve the crisis; these had no effect on the employers (although William Martin Murphy (qv) had participated in some of Ishbel's charitable projects). After the outbreak of the Great War, Aberdeen encouraged employers to facilitate recruiting by sacking labourers, thus forcing them to join the army. His second son joined up and was wounded twice; his eldest son was an epileptic.
Aberdeen favoured a hard line against Ulster unionist opposition to the third home rule bill; after the Larne gun-running he advised the cabinet to arrest the UVF leaders but was overruled, and when an amending bill allowing for temporary partition was introduced into the house of lords in July 1914 he privately told Armour that he would have liked to vote against it.
Despite intermittent pressure on Aberdeen to resign, he and Ishbel clung to the lord lieutenancy from a combination of financial constraints (which made the official salary very useful) and belief that they had a special mission to reconcile Ireland and Britain. Their retention of office was assisted by the fact that their youngest son, Archibald, had been engaged to the daughter of the prime minister, Herbert Asquith, at the time of his death in a car accident in 1909. Aberdeen eventually resigned in February 1915 after it was revealed that his wife had engaged in politically motivated interference with Red Cross activities. His services in Ireland were recognised by the title of marquess in the UK peerage. He initially wished to include the name Tara in his title, but after a protest in Ireland (combining cultural nationalists who saw this as an insult to Tara and unionists personally hostile to Aberdeen) the marquessate was styled ‘Aberdeen and Temair’. Some nationalists expressed regret and disquiet at the departure from Dublin castle of such a resolute advocate of home rule; John Redmond (qv) privately opposed it and later compared it to the dismissal in 1795 of Earl Fitzwilliam (qv) in its effect on public opinion. Even the satirists of the Leader paper of D. P. Moran (qv) called Aberdeen ‘a decent man’ and attributed the agitation over the title to ‘anti-Irish humbugs’. The Aberdeens then toured the USA, collecting funds for Lady Aberdeen's Irish Women's National Health Association and accompanied by an ultra-tory whispering campaign accusing them of sinister contacts with Irish-American separatists.
Later years and death
In 1920 Aberdeen handed over the Haddo estate, reduced to a fraction of its former size by land sales, to his eldest son. He and Ishbel retired to a dower house at Cromar, Tarland, Aberdeenshire, where he died from a sudden heart attack on 7 March 1934. He was buried at the family burial ground at Haddo. A large crowd attended a memorial service in the Abbey Presbyterian Church, Dublin. His career reflects the attractions and limitations of the Gladstonian project of a ‘Union of Hearts’, combining a genuine drive for reconciliation with moralistic mediocrity and patronising sentimentalism; on balance it bears out Armour's 1914 comment that ‘when the Philistines were dead and forgotten their excellencies would be remembered . . . as real benefactors of Ireland’ (McMinn, 197–8).
During his career Aberdeen received numerous honours, including the GCMG (1886), the Order of the Thistle (1906), and the GCVO (1911). He was awarded the freedom of the cities of Edinburgh, Hamilton (Ontario), Aberdeen, Cork, and Waterford, and he received honorary degrees from several universities, among them Aberdeen (1883), Ontario (1907), and Oxford (1907). He was lord rector of St Andrews University (1913).
There are collections of Aberdeen's letters in the British Library, the Scottish Record Office (Edinburgh), and the NLI. A portrait of Aberdeen by Charles Furse hangs in Dublin castle.