When the Ninth Earl of Bessborough arrived in Canada in 1931, the country was in the grips of The Great Depression. It was a time of hardship for the country, economic strife and a changing landscape thanks to the spread of radio.
Today, I am looking at Vere Brabazon Ponsonby, who served as our 14th Governor General. Through this episode, I will refer to him as Bessborough.
Bessborough was born on Oct. 27, 1880 in London as the first son to Edward, the Eighth Earl of Bessborough and his wife Blanche. His mother’s father was Sir Josiah Guest, who was the great-uncle of Sir Winston Churchill. The family was said to have been founded by John Ponsonby of Cumberland and the family moved to Ireland where Sir John Ponsonby was the sheriff of Wiklow and Kilkenny counties in 1654. William Ponsonby became the first Baron Bessborough of Ireland in 1721. General Sir Henry Frederick Ponsonby was the private secretary of her majesty’s purse to Queen Victoria from 1878 to his death in 1895.
It was said of his ancestors quote:
“Lord Bessborough’s ancestors drew a bow at Hastings and rode with Cornwell’s Horse in the days of the Roundheads.”
As a young man, Bessborough attended Harrow School before going on to attend Trinity College at Cambridge in 1898 where he graduated from in 1901.
In 1903, Bessborough began a career in law when he was called to the bar. He would then succeed his father as the Earl of Bessborough in 1906.
Like other Governors General before him, he would enter into politics in 1907, winning a seat on the London County Council. He would remain in that post for 10 years until he was elected to the House of Commons.
On June 25, 1912, he married Roberte de Neuflize. Together, they would have four children, one of which, George, was born in Canada and was given the middle name of St. Lawrence.
When the First World War began, Bessborough joined the army, with a commission as a Second Lieutenant. He would eventually reach the rank of acting major and took part in several battles including Gallipoli.
During the war, he would be mentioned in dispatches, earn the Legion of Honour, the Order of the Redeemer and be named a Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George.
On Dec. 1, 1920, his father died and Bessborough was forced to leave the House of Commons and join the House of Lords. At the time, he was the director of about 20 companies in England.
In early 1931, the announcement came that Bessborough would be the new Governor General of Canada. This greatly surprised him as he did not think he was in the talks to take on the post. He had been recommended by Prime Minister R.B. Bennett and British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald. King George V accepted this and Bessborough became the first businessman to be appointed as Governor General. As his wife was from Paris and the daughter of a Paris baron, the appointment was also looked upon favourably by the French Canadians of Canada.
Opposition leader William Lyon Mackenzie King was happy with the appointment, calling it a good appointment. King also wrote in his diary that it was made without consultation with the British Government. He would write quote:
“An Irish gentleman, I hope with a wife who apparently is charming and beautiful and has great wealth. We shall be in for a social regime that will strengthen Toryism in Canada, but the people will win notwithstanding.”
In his public statement, King said quote:
“His majesty the king has been graciously pleased to approve the appointment of the Earl of Bessborough as Governor General of the Dominion of Canada.”
Upon arriving in Canada, there was a hiccup when someone forgot to have the flag flying at the Parliament Buildings but the couple still received a great welcome from residents and officials.
On April 4, 1931, he would be sworn in as the Governor General of Canada.
King would write in his diary quote:
“Bennett introduced me and I said to his Excellency, personally and on behalf of the Opposition in Parliament, may I extend the heartiest of welcomes to your Excellency. I was favourably impressed with him. He is the first Governor General I have known who has been younger in years than myself.”
The Countess of Bessborough arrived wearing a black fur coat and was described by the Ottawa Citizen as quote:
“Tall, slim, a perfect type of brunette and her personality, of which so much has been written, was reflected in the very friendly smile with which she greeted those who met her.”
The Governor General was described as quote:
“A striking and handsome figure. Attired in the uniform of the Imperial Privy Councilors he looked the picture of health. He is well over six feet, erect and soldierly in his bearing.”
After being greeted by Prime Minister R.B. Bennett, the Governor General and his wife were welcomed by Mildred Bennett, the sister of the prime minister.
Bessborough stated quote:
“It is very gratifying to Lady Bessborough and myself to be welcomed, at the end of our long journey, in terms so cordial as those of the address to which we have just listened. Both of us, I can assure you, are looking forward eagerly to seeing your beautiful city, not merely because it is the capital and seat of the government of the Dominion, but also because it will be, from today, the home in which we hope to spend happy years.”
Nineteen guns then fired a salute to the Governor General and the Governor General inspected the Guard of Honor, consisting of 110 bluejackets from the Royal Canadian Navy. Throughout the city, the streets were draped with flags, and arches marked the route towards Government House.
Soon after arriving, on Aug. 17, 1931, Lady Bessborough gave birth to a son at the Royal Victoria Montreal Maternity Hospital.
The Montreal Gazette reported quote:
“A son was born to Her Excellency Lady Bessborough at the Royal Victoria Montreal Maternity Hospital this morning. Both mother and son are doing well, and Her Excellency’s condition gives no cause for anxiety.”
His godfather would be the King himself. One year later, the new baby was reviewing the guard, at least with his mother. The Ottawa Citizen reported quote:
“Under a striped awning, the governor general was accompanied by the Countess of Bessborough and attended by the Prime Minister of Canada and a brilliant staff. Baby Bessborough sat in a deep English baby carrier…Shaded from the sun by the beige canopy of the carriage, Baby Bessborough fixed his large bright eyes on the gay scarlet coats.”
Sadly, the son would live to the age of 19 before he died in 1951 in a car accident in Germany where he was serving in the army.
Throughout his time as Governor General, Bessborough travelled the country and saw the impact that The Great Depression was having on Canadians. He would say in a speech quote:
“There is nothing more encouraging and cheering than the calm steady way Canadians have pursued their daily tasks during the difficult period with supreme faith in the destiny of their country.”
Due to what he saw, he would give up 10 per cent of his salary. He would also support the Employment Service Plan, congratulating cities who had implemented the plan. He would say quote:
“I am not inaugurating a new idea, nor am I making an appeal, but I think and hope that this spirit of friendliness has become part of us.”
While out west, he would also visit southern Alberta where he was made an honorary chief of the Blood Nation of Indigenous and given the name Aae-Mi-Na, which means the great chief.
Canada at the time was also growing in its international reputation and Bessborough would host many dignitaries who came to Canada, arguably more than any other Governor General to that point. The Imperial Economic Conference would be held in 1932, and through the years Winston Churchill, Kim Rama VII of Siam and Prince Takamatsu would visit the country.
As Governor General, he would help open the Welland Canal, his installation ceremony would be broadcast by radio for the first time, he would inaugurate the first trans-Canada telephone line by calling each lieutenant governor in the country. He also had a direct telephone line installed in his office that went straight to Prime Minister R.B. Bennett. He would sign the Act to create the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and he would be the first viceroy to fly the new standard that was dedicated to his office. This new standard was created after it was decided that the Governor General represented the British Crown, not the British Parliament. In a tradition that continues to this day, it is flown at other locations for official ceremonies and at Rideau Hall when the Governor General is home.
Whenever Bessborough and his wife went anywhere, they were often greeted with huge crowds. On Oct. 23, 1933, at a gala in Simcoe, Ontario, thousands of people lined the streets as the vice-regal party passed through during a two hour stay in the community. The Brantford newspaper stated quote:
“The town was gay with bunting with practically every home flag decked, and the merchants and other proprietors of downtown business establishments vying with another in their patriotic displays.”
Vancouver fell in love with Lady Bessborough, with the Vancouver Sun writing quote:
“Glowing accounts of her regal beauty and gracious charm have been told and retold since the Countess Bessborough first set foot on Canadian soil…One noted her smart attire but eyes only paused a moment for sartorial impression before being drawn by the friendliness of smile and greeted that lighted the face of the Governor General’s consort.”
During a visit to Vancouver for the exhibition, 1,000 people lined the streets and Bessborough and Lady Bessborough shook hands with most of them between 9 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.
Of course, while Bessborough was well liked, he could also be known to have a quick temper that limited his interactions with Canadians. In one case in 1934, Bessborough arrived for a visit in Toronto and finding no one to receive him, publicly reprimanded the mayor of the city.
It would be said years later quote:
“The incident led to his being made the target of more outspoken press criticism than any of his recent predecessors had incurred, and, since he had a high sense of his duty, he was deeply distressed by it.”
This would push him to change his ways though as few people came to his defense. It is stated quote:
“Consequently, he succeeded in retaining a considerable measure of goodwill.”
Bessborough would also launch a campaign to increase membership in the Scouts, create the Dominion Drama Festival and award the Bessborough Trophy which is given to the best amateur theatre company in the country.
The Calgary Herald reported on the family’s love of acting, stating quote:
“Another form of amusement that Lady Bessborough loves is amateur acting. With her husband and her two children, Lord Duncannon and Lady Moyra Ponsonby, she has appeared in many Shakespearean plays and in several modern psychological plays like Outward Bound and The Rising Generation. She excels in creating costumes for their parts, while Lord Bessborough is an accomplished scene painter.”
His time as Governor General would come to an end on Nov. 2, 1935, just as William Lyon Mackenzie King regained the office of prime minister. The Governor General ended his time in Canada early due to the health of his wife, as it was felt another winter in the country would not be good for her.
As the family left Canada, they were escorted by the Princess Louise Dragoon Guards, and a 19 gun salute took place to honour the family for their time in Canada.
During the Second World War, he established a department of the British Foreign Office that was dedicated to the welfare of French refugees in the United Kingdom. He would still have connections with Canada and attended Dominion Day receptions at Canada House in London.
In 1956, he returned to Canada to visit the first Canadian born Governor General, Vincent Massey.
One year later on March 10, 1956, he died at his estate. He had been ill for three months before his death.
Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent said he was quote:
“A man of great distinction who always manifested keen interest in the progress and development of Canada and all its institutions.”
George Dew, the Leader of the Opposition stated quote:
“Both he and Lady Bessborough at all times did everything could for Canadians who were in England.”
Today, two schools in Alberta and New Brunswick are named for him, as is an armoury in Vancouver.
I will end this episode with what the London Times said of Bessborough upon his death, stating quote:
“Although he will not rank in Canadian history among the greater holders of the office, he discharged his duties with energy and conscientiousness.”
Information from Library and Archives Canada, Canadian Encyclopedia, Macleans, Wikipedia, Governor General of Canada, Edmonton Journal, Ottawa Citizen, Montreal Gazette, Vancouver Sun, Victoria Times Colonist