When Lord Kimberley died on 8 April 1902, he was commonly remembered as Gladstone’s loyal lieutenant: competent, hard-working, and high-minded. By praising these very civilian virtues in the context of war-charged, turn-of-the-century high politics, his twentieth-century eulogists were politely wondering exactly why Kimberley had mattered. After all, as one journalist wrote, he was as far removed from the younger school of statesmen as if he had lived and served his country in the days of Queen Anne.
Wodehouse was born on 7 January 1826. With the early death of his father in 1834, he became heir to the barony, then held by his Tory grandfather, John Wodehouse (1771-1846). The family had a long pedigree dating to the reign of Henry I, and a substantial if somewhat impoverished 11,000-acre Norfolk estate. He was educated at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford, where he took a first in Classics. In May 1846 he succeeded as 3rd Baron Wodehouse, and in the following year married Florence Fitzgibbon, daughter of the third Earl of Clare.
Having adopted liberal principles while at Eton, he rose rapidly with the tide of liberalism. He was appointed as Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office (1852-56), as Minister Plenipotentiary to Russia (1856-58) following the Crimean War, and as Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office under Russell in 1858, with full charge of foreign affairs in the House of Lords. The idiosyncratic qualities and political opinions that appealed to Liberal leaders were neatly summarised by Greville, who observed that Wodehouse was ‘clever, well informed, a prodigious talker and a great bore, speaks French fluently, and has plenty of courage and aplomb; his opinions are liberal but not extravagant.’
Refusing to serve as second to Russell after the latter’s elevation to the House of Lords in 1861, Wodehouse resigned and was out of office for three years. In 1864 he was rewarded with the Lord Lieutenancy of Ireland. His resolute handling of the Fenian rebellion was the single most important episode of his career, providing him with a small degree of political leverage, and leading to his elevation to the Earldom of Kimberley (1866). Rosebery later judged the Viceroyalty his best piece of work.
During the 1860s, Kimberley vigorously supported progressive policies on Italy, Ireland, and free trade, leading to the offer of the Privy Seal and a position in the cabinet in December 1868. During the remainder of his career, he generally left domestic policy to party leaders, while carefully guarding administrative interests abroad at the Colonial Office (1870-74, 1880-82), the India Office (1882-85, 1886, 1892-94), and the Foreign Office (1894-95).
At the Colonial Office, Kimberley continued troop withdrawals and the extension of responsible government to the settlement colonies. In the tropical colonies and southern Africa he rejected Cardwell’s extreme policy of retrenchment, annexing the diamond fields of Griqualand West and laying the groundwork for the annexation of Fiji and the extension of British influence in Malaya and the Gold Coast. Upon returning to the Colonial Office in 1880, the cabinet supported the confederation in southern Africa begun under Lord Carnarvon in 1877. The resulting Boer War (December 1880 – March 1881), in which British troops suffered a morally devastating, though strategically inconsequential, defeat at Majuba Hill, led to the only challenge to Kimberley’s cabinet position during his career. Backed by Gladstone, he weathered the press storm and the doubts of some among the Liberals.
When the fifteenth earl of Derby joined Gladstone’s second administration in December 1882, Kimberley agreed to go to the India Office, where he served during the remainder of the government and during the third and fourth Gladstone administrations. Kimberley urged a non-partisan approach to Indian policy, which earned him considerable support on both sides of the House. Though he supported the principle of Viceroy Lord Ripon’s measures for local self-government, he modified ambitious details in the interest of sound administration. Concerned with the looming Russian advance in Central Asia, Kimberley encouraged a more conservative domestic administration of the government under Lords Dufferin (1884-88) and Lansdowne (1888-94), and a strong frontier policy. When Russian occupation of the Penjdeh district of Afghanistan on 30 March 1885 brought the two countries to the brink of war, the cabinet agreed with Kimberley that further encroachments should be met with force. By the end of Gladstone’s second ministry in June, Russia had accepted the principle of arbitration, and a formal settlement was reached a year later, defining more than 300 miles of the Russo-Afghan border.
During Gladstone’s fourth ministry (1892-94), the decline of the rupee was the most troubling issue in India, leading to depression and the loss of capital investment. In an attempt to bolster the value of the currency, Kimberley adopted the recommendations of the Herschell Committee in 1893, including a controversial plan for closing mints to the coinage of silver, an early step toward establishing a gold exchange standard. As a result of financial conditions in India, he resisted motions brought forward in the House of Commons that might have led to the reduction of opium revenues.
With Gladstone’s resignation in March 1894, divisions within the Liberal Party became more pronounced. Rosebery, widely considered the most attractive Liberal in the country after Gladstone, now had to compete for influence with the leader of the House of Commons, Sir William Harcourt. With Rosebery making Kimberley’s appointment to the Foreign Office a sine qua non to his own acceptance of the Prime Ministership, Kimberley’s position was politicised from the start. During his first months in office, Kimberley and Rosebery worked together closely, as they had during Gladstone’s third and fourth ministries. Kimberley became uneasy, however, with Rosebery’s penchant for secrecy. Rejecting the European policy of coercing Japan in the wake of the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), Kimberley renounced unequal treaties and took the initial steps in the direction of an Anglo-Japanese alliance.
From 1895 Kimberley played the role of elder statesman, Uncle Kim, to a younger generation of Liberals. He quietly mediated personal disputes, and was frequently consulted by younger Liberals who valued his long experience, administrative competence, and mastery of foreign issues. He had led the Lords in the late 1880s when Granville was ill, and after Granville’s death (1891-94), and took it up once again by consensus after Rosebery’s retirement in 1896. After Harcourt’s retirement in 1898, Kimberley worked cordially with Henry Campbell-Bannerman to bridge differences between the Gladstonian and Imperialist wings of the party. Though a thorough Gladstonian in his commitment to the ideals of Irish home rule, free trade, and individualism, Kimberley consistently backed law and order, both domestic and international, as the true foundation of liberal governance, and thus supported the Conservative government during the Boer War.
Kimberley has no biography, but his career is extensively treated in Angus Hawkins and John Powell (eds.), The Journal of John Wodehouse, First Earl of Kimberley, for 1869-1902 (1997).