Matthew Nathan

For the U.S. Navy surgeon general, see Matthew L. Nathan.
The Right Honourable
Sir Matthew Nathan
20th Governor of the Gold Coast
In office
17 December 1900  9 February 1904
Preceded by Frederick Mitchell Hodgson
Succeeded by John Pickersgill Rodger
13th Governor of Hong Kong
In office
29 July 1904  29 July 1907
Preceded by Sir Henry Arthur Blake
Succeeded by Sir Frederick Lugard
7th Governor of Natal
In office
2 September 1907  23 December 1909
Preceded by Sir Henry Edward McCallum
Succeeded by Paul Methuen, 3rd Baron Methuen
13th Governor of Queensland
In office
3 December 1920  17 September 1925
Preceded by Sir Hamilton Goold-Adams
Succeeded by Sir John Goodwin
Personal details
Born (1862-01-03)3 January 1862
Paddington, London
Died 18 April 1939(1939-04-18) (aged 77)
West Coker, Somerset
Nationality British
Alma mater Royal Military Academy, Woolwich
Profession Soldier, colonial administrator
Religion Judaism

Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Matthew Nathan, GCMG, PC (3 January 1862 – 18 April 1939) was a British soldier and colonial administrator, who variously served as the Governor of Sierra Leone, Gold Coast, Hong Kong, Natal and Queensland. He was Under-Secretary for Ireland from 1914 to 1916, and was responsible, with the Chief Secretary, Augustine Birrell, for the administration of Ireland in the years immediately preceding the Easter Rising.

Early life and career

Nathan was born in Paddington, England. He was of Jewish descent and the second son of businessman Jonah Nathan and Miriam Jacob Nathan. His brothers were Colonel Sir Frederick Nathan, an officer of the Royal Artillery and sometime Superintendent of Waltham Abbey Royal Gunpowder Mills, and Sir Nathaniel Nathan, a colonial judge in Trinidad and Tobago.

Nathan was educated at Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, where he was the winner of the Pollock Medal (1880) before being gazetted to Royal Engineers in 1880. He continued his training at the School of Military Engineering, Chatham from 1880 to 1884.

Nathan was sent to military expeditions to Sudan (1884–1885) and to Lushai, India (1889–1894). He was promoted to the position of Captain in 1889 and became the secretary to the Colonial Defence Committee between 1896 and 1898. Nathan was promoted to Major in 1898.

Colonial Service

Nathan was appointed acting governor of Sierra Leone from 1899 to 1900. Late that year, he was appointed as Governor of Gold Coast,[1] a position he occupied until 1903. In 1902, Nathan imported into the Gold Coast a £543 French Gardner-Serpollet, paraffin-fired, steam-driven car for his use on the roads around Accra.[2]

In 1903, Nathan was appointed as Governor of Hong Kong, a position he would serve until 1907. During his tenure, Nathan was credited with the establishment of a central urban planning and reconstruction policy, which regulated the growth of Hong Kong and built major thoroughfares in the Kowloon Peninsula. The construction of Kowloon-Canton Railway started under this period.

In 1907, Nathan was made Governor of Natal (until 1909). In that same year, he was raised to a higher rank of Lieutenant Colonel. In 1909 he returned to England and took up an appointment as secretary to the General Post Office, a position he served until 1911. He was Chairman of the Board of Inland Revenue between 1911 and 1914.

Under-Secretary for Ireland

Nathan was appointed Under-Secretary for Ireland in August 1914, just after the outbreak of World War I and the signing into law of the Home Rule Act 1914.[3] His immediate superior was the Chief Secretary, Augustine Birrell. At this time the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland was largely a ceremonial position, and the Chief Secretary spent much of his time in London where he was a member of the cabinet, so the Under-Secretary was effectively the head of the administration in Ireland.[4] Nathan's job involved liaising with the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) to prepare them for self-government. He was also concerned with recruiting in Ireland, and received regular reports from the police and military about anti-recruiting and pro-independence activity, including the threat of a German invasion or arms landing in support of an Irish rising.[5] Alarmed at the growing numbers of separatists in the Civil Service, Nathan wrote to the authorities to have them transferred to England, and eventually got cabinet approval for a letter warning civil servants that they would be dismissed if they continued as members of the Irish Volunteers.[6] He used the Defence of the Realm Act 1914 to suppress newspapers he considered seditious, against the advice of the IPP[7] In general, however, he avoided any action that might provoke violence.

On Good Friday, 21 April 1916, Nathan was informed that a German boat had been stopped off the coast of County Kerry carrying arms and ammunition, and that a man had been arrested after coming ashore from another vessel. The man arrested was subsequently identified as Sir Roger Casement[8] A mobilization of the Irish Volunteers fixed for Easter Sunday was cancelled the day before. Nathan, believing that a rising had been averted, discussed with the Lord Lieutenant, Lord Wimborne, the necessity of raiding premises associated with the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army and arresting their leaders.[9] Nathan cabled Birrell, the Chief Secretary, in London to obtain authorisation for these actions. On Easter Monday, 24 April 1916, while he was in his office in Dublin Castle awaiting Birrell's response, the Easter Rising broke out and Dublin Castle itself was attacked.[10] The Castle gates were closed and the rebels did not press the attack, but Nathan was a virtual prisoner until troops arrived from the Curragh Camp on Monday evening.[11] Nathan remained in the Castle for the rest of the week (being moved to the stables to accommodate the military) where he kept in contact with London, keeping the government up to date with the situation and helping to answer questions in Parliament.[12] The Rising came to an end on 30 April. The same day Birrell offered his resignation, and on 3 May, at Birrell's request, Nathan also resigned.[13] The Royal Commission on the 1916 Rebellion (the Hardinge commission) was critical of Birrell and Nathan, in particular their failure to take action against the rebels in the weeks and months before the Rising.[14]

Later career

After his resignation Nathan was appointed secretary to the Ministry of Pensions, a position he held until 1919. In 1920, he was appointed Governor of Queensland and served in that position until 1925. It was to be his last post in the Colonial Service. During his tenure, Nathan actively promoted British migration to Queensland. In 1922 he founded, along with Henry Caselli Richards, the Great Barrier Reef Committee. After his appointment expired, Nathan left Queensland for retirement in Somerset, England. He died in England in 1939.


Places named after him

Nathan Road, the main commercial artery in the Kowloon Peninsula (otherwise known as the Golden Mile), was named after him. In Australia, Nathan and Nathan Heights in Brisbane (the capital city of Queensland) and Nathan Street in the Canberra suburb of Deakin were named after him. Nathan House, a boarding house for Form 2 learners at Maritzburg College in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa is named in his honour.

See also


  1. The London Gazette: no. 27245. p. 6854. 9 November 1900.
  2. Simon Heap, 'The development of motor transport in the Gold Coast, 1900–39', Journal of Transport History, 1990, pp. 19–37
  3. Ó Broin, Leon, Dublin Castle & the 1916 Rising, Sidgwick & Jackson, 1970, p. 12
  4. Ó Broin, Leon, Dublin Castle & the 1916 Rising, p. 21
  5. Ó Broin, Leon, Dublin Castle & the 1916 Rising, pp. 19–23
  6. Ó Broin, Leon, Dublin Castle & the 1916 Rising, pp. 32–34
  7. Ó Broin, Leon, Dublin Castle & the 1916 Rising, pp. 38–42
  8. Ó Broin, Leon, Dublin Castle & the 1916 Rising, p. 81
  9. Ó Broin, Leon, Dublin Castle & the 1916 Rising, pp. 82–86
  10. Ó Broin, Leon, Dublin Castle & the 1916 Rising, p. 91
  11. Ó Broin, Leon, Dublin Castle & the 1916 Rising, p. 94
  12. Ó Broin, Leon, Dublin Castle & the 1916 Rising, p. 100
  13. Ó Broin, Leon, Dublin Castle & the 1916 Rising, p. 117
  14. Ó Broin, Leon, Dublin Castle & the 1916 Rising, p. 161


Wikimedia Commons has media related to Matthew Nathan.
Government offices
Preceded by
Frederick Mitchell Hodgson
Governor of the Gold Coast
Succeeded by
John Pickersgill Rodger
Preceded by
Sir Henry Arthur Blake
Governor of Hong Kong
Succeeded by
Sir Frederick Lugard
Preceded by
Sir Henry Edward McCallum
Governor of Natal
Succeeded by
The Lord Methuen
Preceded by
Sir Hamilton Goold-Adams
Governor of Queensland
Succeeded by
Sir John Goodwin
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