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White, Sir William Arthurlocked

  • C. A. Harris
  • , revised by H. C. G. Matthew

White, Sir William Arthur (1824–1891), diplomatist, the son of Arthur White, who was in the British consular service, and Eliza Lila, daughter of Lieutenant-General William Gardiner Neville, was born in February 1824 in Poland; both his parents were Irish. He was educated at King William's College, Isle of Man, and at Trinity College, Cambridge, where his staunch Roman Catholicism prevented him from taking a degree. He entered the consular service unusually late, already aged thirty-three, on 9 March 1857 as clerk to the consul-general at Warsaw. He frequently acted as consul-general, and on 9 January 1861 he became vice-consul, again acting as consul-general for the greater part of 1862 and 1863. Here, with strong Polish sympathies, he nevertheless managed to avoid offending Russia during the Polish revolution of 1863. On 9 November 1864 he was appointed consul at Danzig, where he also acted for six months in 1866 as Belgian consul, and during the war of 1870 took charge of French interests. While at Danzig he married, in 1867, Katherine, daughter of Lewis Kendzior of Danzig; they left an only daughter, Lila Lucy Catherine Mary (later Lady Abinger). White's wife was 'a lovely and genial lady who for twenty-five years never faltered at his side' (Edwards, 265).

On 27 February 1875 White was transferred to Serbia as British agent and consul-general. This post at last gave him some scope for employing the knowledge which for many years past he had been acquiring, and laid the foundation of his great influence in dealing with Eastern nationalities. Within a few months of his arrival in Serbia the Eastern question entered an acute phase, and in June 1876 the Serbians, following the lead of Herzegovina, declared war against Turkey. Their defeat was followed by the conference at Constantinople in December 1876. There Lord Salisbury was assisted by White, and was deeply impressed by his knowledge and ability. This link with Salisbury enabled him to move from the consular to the diplomatic service.

In 1877 White returned to Serbia; he was transferred to Bucharest in July 1878 and appointed envoy-extraordinary and minister-plenipotentiary on 3 March 1879, though he did not present his credentials until Britain recognized Romania in February 1880. On 18 April 1885 he was nominated envoy-extraordinary at Constantinople, and was at once brought face to face with a question of first importance—the legality of the annexation of Eastern Roumelia to Bulgaria in defiance of the treaty of Berlin of 1878. Russia took the ground that the treaty must be upheld at all costs. White's obstructive diplomatic tactics contributed directly to the consolidation of Bulgarian nationality, and the Bulgarians were not slow to recognize this. Early in 1886 he was specially thanked by the government for his action. He was created CB on 21 March 1878, KCMG on 16 March 1883, GCMG on 28 January 1886, GCB on 2 June 1888, and sworn of the privy council on 29 June 1888; he was made an honorary LLD of Cambridge University on 17 June 1886.

On coming into office in 1886, Lord Salisbury appointed White to the embassy at Constantinople; on 11 October he was confirmed as special ambassador-extraordinary and plenipotentiary, and was the first Roman Catholic to achieve this rank in the British diplomatic service since the Reformation. White's years as ambassador were of unusual importance, for it was from his diplomatic conversations that the first and second Mediterranean agreements of March and December 1887 may be said to have derived. Defence of the straits and partnership with Germany and the triple alliance were the bases of White's approach to the Eastern question. His memorandum of 25 July 1887 set out Britain's cautious support for Turkish railway expansion into Asia Minor under British control, though his efforts to build a railway through the Kaulla concession led to financial disaster (Smith, 112–31). White welcomed German involvement in this railway building, and was subsequently much criticized for allowing the growth of German influence in the Ottoman empire. By the time of his retirement in 1891 his close links with Salisbury had weakened, for the latter had begun to abandon the policy of propping up the Porte.

White left Constantinople on 24 December 1891 and, returning via Berlin, caught a chill and died at the Kaiserhof Hotel there on 28 December. He was buried in the Roman Catholic church of St Hedwig, Berlin, on 31 December. His wife survived him. White was a hard worker with none of the usual relaxations of the diplomatist (sport, food, and cards) (Edwards, 260–61). He had what his biographer called 'a certain superficial roughness which his enemies sometimes mistook for asperity of character' (Edwards, 264).


  • FO List (1891)
  • The Times (29 Dec 1891)
  • The Times (30 Dec 1891)
  • The Times (1 Jan 1892)
  • The Times (2 Jan 1892)
  • TLS (12 Jan 1928), 27
  • private information (1923)
  • H. S. Edwards, Sir William White (1902)
  • C. L. Smith, The embassy of Sir William White at Constantinople, 1886–1891 (1957)
  • W. N. M., ‘The Dictionary of National Biography: Sir W. A. White’, BIHR, 5 (1927–8), 58–9


  • TNA: PRO, corresp. and papers, FO 364/1–11
  • Balliol Oxf., Layard MSS; Morris MSS, corresp. with Sir Robert Morier
  • BL, corresp. with Sir Austen Layard, Add. MSS 38939, 39130–39134
  • BL, corresp. with Sir Augustus Paget, Add. MS 51231
  • CUL, letters to Charles Hardinge
  • NL Scot., letters to Sir Henry Elliot
  • TNA: PRO, letters to Sir Arthur Nicolson, PRO 30/81
  • TNA: PRO, Ampthill MSS, FO 918
  • TNA: PRO, letters to Lord Odo Russell, FO 918


  • J. Johnstone, carte-de-visite, 1863, NPG

Wealth at Death

£14,819 14s. 7d.: resworn probate, April 1892, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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