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With the departure of Lord Byng as Governor General, the position was going through a drastic change as the country moved through the last half of the 1920s. After the King Byng Affair, there was a movement in political circles of Canada to limit the powers of the Governor General and make Canada more autonomous when it came to Britain.
It was in this atmosphere that Freeman Freeman-Thomas, yes that was his name, the First Marquess of Willingdon, arrived. I will refer to him as Thomas through this episode.
Freeman Thomas was born on Sept. 12, 1886 as the only son of Freeman Frederick Thomas and Mabel Henry. His father was a celebrated cricket player from 1860 to 1867, who played for Sussex. Sadly, Thomas his father died when he was only two years old. His mother would raise him at this point and he would attend Eton College, where he was a member of the school’s cricket team.
His skill in cricket would take him onwards to Cambridge and then Trinity College, where he continued to play.
Along with playing cricket, Thomas was interested in the military and after he enrolled in university, he volunteered for the Sussex Artillery, where he would serve for 15 years, reaching the rank of major.
In 1892, he would marry Marie Brassey and the two would have a strong and deep marriage. Thomas would say of her quote:
“My wife has been a constant inspiration and encouragement.”
Together, the couple would have two sons, one of whom sadly died in the first month of the First World War.
With his marriage, Thomas began to move up in the political world. In 1897, he was the aide-de-camp to his father-in-law, who was serving as the Governor of Victoria in Australia.
In 1900, Thomas returned to England and was elected to the House of Commons, where he would serve until 1910.
The same year he left politics, he would be elevated to be the Baron Willingdon of Ratton.
One year later, he was made the Lord-in-Waiting to King George V, of whom he was the favourite tennis partner.
On Feb. 17, 1913, Thomas was appointed as the Crown Governor of Bombay. It was in this role that Thomas would meet a man named Mahatma Gandhi, who had come back to India from South Africa and Willingdon would be one of the first individuals to welcome him to India. After meeting with Gandhi, Thomas would say he was quote:
“honest, but a Bolshevik and for that reason, very dangerous.”
In 1917, famine hit Bombay that resulted in farmers being unable to pay their taxes. The government still insisted that taxes be paid, while also implementing a 23 per cent increase to the levies. This became the setting for Gandhi’s first instance of non-violent resistance. The people who support Gandhi would send Thomas a petition asking him to cancel the taxes but the cabinet refused and told Thomas to take property by force.
On April 10, 1919, Willingdon was returned to Britain and was appointed to be the Governor of Madras. While serving in that position, he had to deal with a series of communal riots and he would declare martial law.
In 1924, he returned to England and became the Viscount Willingdon.
On Aug. 5, 1926, Thomas was appointed as the Governor General of Canada on the recommendation of British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin. Thomas was not the main choice of the government but the King put his name on the list for inclusion to be sent to Canada and it was Thomas that Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King chose for his nomination. King spoke with the current Governor General, Lord Byng, about it. He would write in his diary quote:
“Lord Byng said he thought Willingdon would be far the best of the name.”
King George V accepted this and Thomas was notified while on a diplomatic mission in China.
William Lyon Mackenzie King quite liked Thomas and his wife and had met them earlier that year. He would write in his journal quote:
“I spoke to them of their coming to Canada. This led to our speaking of the spiritual life as the only reality. Lord Willingdon was fine in the way he spoke of his mother and son praying each night to and for them. He was very interested in my bible, as was Lady Willingdon.”
This would be the last time that the viceregal appointment for Canada would be made by the monarch in his or her capacity as sovereign of the United Kingdom.
At the Imperial Conference in October 1926, it was decided that the Dominions of the British Empire would be equal and that the monarch would only operate under the guidance of the country’s ministers. This would be formalized into the Statute of Westminster in 1931.
The Balfour Declaration issued in 1926 also declared that Governors General were no longer the representatives of the British government in diplomatic relations with the Dominions. Beginning in 1928, the United Kingdom would appoint a High Commissioner to Canada.
Byng would tell Thomas that it was for the Governor General to leave things alone unless asked for help. That he should help if he could, but not to advise it.
As it turned out, King, in conversation with Lord Beaverbrook, found that the British government was against Willingdon and had wanted to appoint one of their own men. It was King that had compelled them to meet his wishes in the matter.
He would write quote:
“They had been putting off the appointment expecting that I would not last out the session and they would in all probability have appointed Sir Samuel Hoare. Beaverbrook thought Willingdon much more preferable. He agreed that the Office of the Governor General should be simply that of viceroy.”
On Oct. 2, 1926, Thomas arrived in Canada and was sworn in at the Quebec Legislature. He then became the first Governor General to represent the British Crown, rather than the British government.
King would write quote:
“They were both charming. I found him amazed at Lord Byng’s unconstitutional attitude in permitting Meighen to carry on when defeated by Parliament. He had read the debate in the House of Commons, had known nothing like it. Both he and Lady Willingdon talked very freely and thanked me very heartily. They spoke of being sorry not to have been able to cable on my victory.”
The Toronto Globe would write quote:
“It is apparent from his speech delivered at the banquet given in his honour in London that Lord Willingdon is coming to Canada in an optimistic frame of mind. He has had opportunities for judging the attitude of the people of the Dominion towards the Motherland and the Empire and toward the destiny in store for their own country.”
In his position as governor general, Thomas would travel throughout the country, visiting with Canadians who liked his sense of humour and air of informality.
The Edmonton Journal reported quote:
“It is understand that Lord Willingdon is so impressed by Canadians he has met in Canada.”
In his travels, he became the first Governor General to travel by air, when he flew from Ottawa to Montreal. He would also visit the Pacific Coast every year that he served as Governor General. In 1927, 1928 and 1930, he visited the Maritimes as well.
Thomas would visit the United States in 1927 to meet with President Calvin Coolidge, and then went to the Caribbean in 1929. In Washington, he was met by the King’s Emissary to the United States, Vincent Massey, who would become the first Canadian-born Governor General.
The Vancouver Province wrote of the visit to Washington quote:
“The visit of Viscount Willingdon is to be one of the state and he will live at the legation not as a guest of the minister for Canada, but as a ruler of a nation. The Governor General will receive a call from President Coolidge, a compliment paid only to the rulers of friendly powers.”
As Governor General, Thomas hosted Prince Edward, Prince of Wales, and Prince George, who had come to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of the Confederation of Canada. The Prince of Wales would dedicate the Memorial Chamber at the Peace Tower, in a ceremony that was part of the first ever coast-to-coast radio broadcast in Canadian history.
Thomas and his wife had a love for arts and they would introduce the Willingdon Arts Competition that focused on painting and sculpture.
In 1927, Thomas donated the Willingdon Cup to be awarded to the champion of the interprovincial amateur golf competition.
Like other Governors General, Thomas loved hockey and often attended the home matches of the Ottawa Senators. In 1930, he would donate a trophy to the team to be awarded to the player who provided the greatest assistance to his team. The team would award this to the player who led the team in assists.
The Montreal Gazette wrote quote:
“His Excellency suggests the cup be awarded to the player who through each season is judged to be of most assistance to the team. This will probably be determined by the number of assists which are credited to the player. The Governor General is an ardent follower of the ice game and attends the majority of the Senators home games.”
As Governor General, Thomas took a special interest in French-Canadians, encouraging their handicrafts and he would often spend time in Quebec.
In March 1931, Thomas would find out that he was leaving his post as Governor General and was going back to India to be the Governor General there.
On the couple’s ride from Rideau Hall to their waiting train, the couple were escorted by the Princess Louise Dragoon Guards, the most famous calvary unit in Ottawa. A guard of honour were also on hand at the train station to send off the couple.
The Six Nation Indigenous would send a message to the couple, stating quote:
“I beg to convey to your excellencies our expressions of regret at your departure from us and to express our sincerest wishes that the people of India may appreciate the benefit and charm of your presence amongst them as we have in Canada.”
The citizens of Brantford would show their appreciate to Lady Willingdon by presenting her with a pair of diamond earrings. To pay for this, $10,000 was raised through subscriptions as a parting gift. Residents were able to raise more than what the earrings cost, and Lady Willingdon suggested that the rest be given to the Victorian Order of Nurses.
The last message Thomas would send before leaving Canada was sent to his friend King, which stated quote:
“God bless and guide you.”
He was sworn in only two weeks after he was replaced in Canada by the Earl of Bessborough.
King would express sorry over Thomas and his wife leaving Canada. He would write in his diary quote:
“They have been truly good friends.”
Thomas would cable to King upon arriving back in England and King would relate this in his diary stating quote:
“Received on returning to House tonight a telegram from Greenock reading ‘Had a splendid voyage but still miserable at leaving you and Canada. Willingdon.’ Those are two good friends. This is most kind.”
Prime Minister R.B. Bennett would say of Willingdon upon his departure quote:
“Canadians will ever remember Lord Willingdon with affection and respect. I feel confident he will continue to serve the King and Empire with the same unselfish devotion he displayed as Governor General.”
Thomas would say of his time in Canada quote:
“Canada has made me gallop all right. I have done my best to keep at the top of the hunt, and I venture to think that, notwithstanding the vigor of the climate and the people of the people, my old legs are as sound as they were when I went to the Dominion.”
Following his time as the Governor General of India, where he had to deal with the growing influence of Gandhi.
He returned to the United Kingdom where he was made the Marquees of Willingdon on May 26, 1936.
He would continue to take part in diplomatic missions over the course of his later life, travelling to South America and New Zealand.
In February 1941, he became sick while on a trade mission in South Africa and was forced to return to England. Then, at the end of July, he developed pneumonia. On Aug. 12, 1941, he would pass away in London.
Prime Minister King would say quote:
“Lord Willingdon’s passing is a loss to the entire British Commonwealth and to international amity and goodwill. To myself, it is a personal grief. We shared a very close and warm friendship which was sustained by correspondence during his years as Viceroy of India, and renewed in subsequent visits to England.”
The Windsor Star wrote quote:
“The tact with which he carried out his duties in Canada, the unfailing courtesy of his contacts with all Canadians, and the perfect blend of dignity and geniality, which marked all his public actions, endeared him to the whole Dominion.”
In Canada, Mount Willingdon and Willingdon, Alberta are named for him. Two schools in British Columbia and Quebec are also named for him.
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Governor General of Canada, Library and Archives Canada, Wikipedia, Edmonton Journal, Vancouver Province, Toronto Globe, Montreal Gazette, Ottawa Citizen,