Nathan, Sir Matthew (1862–1939), soldier and administrator, was born 3 January 1862, second son among nine children of Jonah Nathan and Miriam Nathan (née Jacobs) of London. Both his parents were Jewish; his father – of German origin and a partner in the paper-making firm of Thomas de la Rue – had one son from a previous marriage. Miriam Nathan, 25 years younger than Jonah, exercised a substantial influence on her children's education (they were tutored at home) and their careers. Nathan was commissioned in the Royal Engineers (1880), with an outstanding record as a cadet at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich. After a period working in the War Office inspectorate-general of fortifications, he served in Africa and India (1884–95) and was appointed secretary of the Colonial Defence Committee. Here he exercised and extended his talent for writing thorough, capable, and prosaic memoranda.
Between 1899 and 1909 he served as governor in Sierra Leone and the Gold Coast (1899–1903), Hong Kong (1904–7), and Natal (1907–9). The establishment of the union of South Africa ended this phase of his career. He was made CMG (1899), KCMG (1902), and GCMG (1908). In 1909 he managed a transfer to the home civil service as secretary of the Post Office (until 1911) and then chairman of the Board of Inland Revenue.
Three years later Nathan was chosen to be under-secretary for Ireland, reaching Dublin in October 1914. The coming of war had altered circumstances in Ireland, but had not affected the policy of preparing for a substantial measure of self-government. Nathan, an exceptionally hard worker, energetically forwarded this programme, building a relationship with John Dillon (qv) MP of the Irish party. Although he did sanction the suppression of a number of extreme newspapers, in broad terms he complied with the policy of Augustine Birrell (qv), the chief secretary, to exercise the maximum possible conciliation of the widest possible range of interests in Ireland. The outbreak of the Easter rising in Dublin on 24 April 1916 took Nathan by surprise when he learned of it in his Dublin Castle office (where, characteristically, he was working during a bank holiday). Defective and insufficient intelligence from army and police sources, the order from Eoin MacNeill (qv) cancelling the Volunteer manoeuvres, and the very recent success in Munster against a German arms ship, accompanied by the capture of Roger Casement (qv), had together contributed to Nathan's misjudging the underlying reality. During the suppression of the rising and its aftermath, the military forces and their commanders dominated the Irish administration. Birrell and Nathan offered their resignations, which were accepted. The subsequent royal commission of inquiry criticised both men in its report. Nathan's Irish career of one-and-a-half years provided examples both of his kindly disposed and energetic nature and of his inclination to pursue established policies and practices rather than to appraise them stringently and to press for change by advice and advocacy. Doubtless, in part at least, these traits arose from his military and gubernatorial professional formation. Nevertheless, it was Birrell as chief secretary for Ireland since 1907 who set the policy of the Irish government and directed the ways in which it was to be advanced.
Following a dispiriting stint overseeing the defences of London against a hardly credible threat of attack, Nathan was appointed secretary of the newly established war pensions ministry, another rather unhappy experience. In 1920 he became governor of Queensland, Australia, and chancellor of its university 1922–6, serving there until 1925. In 1925 he was awarded an honorary LLD by the University. He retired to the country house in Somerset which he had bought early in the century, and devoted himself to the study of local history, apart from serving on several government committees between 1926 and 1930. He was a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, the Royal Geographical Society, and the Royal Society of Antiquaries. Nathan died 18 April 1939, unmarried, and was buried in the Jewish cemetery, Willesden, London. The annals of West Coker, which was not completed at his death, was published in 1957, edited by the historian M. M. Postan.