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Alcock, Sir (John) Rutherfordlocked

  • R. K. Douglas
  • , revised by J. A. G. Roberts

Sir (John) Rutherford Alcock (1809–1897)

by Lock & Whitfield, pubd 1877

Alcock, Sir (John) Rutherford (1809–1897), diplomatist, was born in Ealing in May 1809, the son of Thomas Alcock, a doctor practising at Ealing. He was educated at a school at Hexham, Northumberland, and as a medical student at Westminster Hospital and Royal Westminster Ophthalmic Hospital (c.1824–1828), and also studied art in Paris in 1826. For a time he was house surgeon at Westminster Hospital, and in 1832 he was appointed surgeon to the British–Portuguese forces operating in Portugal. In 1836 he was transferred to the marine brigade engaged in the Carlist War in Spain, and rose rapidly to become deputy inspector-general of hospitals. He returned to England in 1838 and became lecturer in surgery at Sydenham College, publishing Notes on the Medical History and Statistics of the British Legion in Spain. On 17 May 1841 he married Henrietta (d. 1853), daughter of Thomas Bacon, a sculptor. Soon afterwards he began to suffer from muscular trouble in his hands, which forced him to end his career as a surgeon.

In 1844 Alcock was appointed British consul at Foochow (Fuzhou), one of the Chinese ports newly opened to foreign trade by the treaty of Nanking (Nanjing). On his way to his new post he briefly acted as consul at Amoy (Xiamen). There his dignified presence (he was about 6 feet tall) and his firmness in demanding that the Chinese authorities should provide the British consul with appropriate accommodation deeply impressed his young interpreter, Harry Parkes, also to have a distinguished career in China and Japan. While consul at Foochow, Alcock asserted British interests and wrote voluminous reports on the prospects for British trade. After a year and a half at Foochow he was transferred to Shanghai, with Parkes following him. Over the next nine years he set the standard for consular activity in China. He insisted that the Chinese should observe treaty obligations and this led to some sharp conflicts with officials. A notable instance of this occurred in 1848, when three missionaries were attacked by a crowd of sailors. As the intendant had failed to punish the rioters, Alcock proclaimed that, until the criminals had been dealt with, no customs duties would be paid by British ships, and that the 1400 grain junks waiting to sail north would not be allowed to leave. Although there were fifty war junks in the harbour and only one British sloop-of-war, the threat apparently succeeded. The rioters were punished and the intendant was removed from office. While Alcock was at Shanghai the municipal regulations for the government of the British community there were established, and the foundations of what was to become the International Settlement were laid. In March 1853 Alcock's wife died, and later that year Shanghai was captured by Small Sword rebels. Imperial control collapsed, and with it the collection of customs duties. This led Alcock to set up the ‘provisional system’, under which foreign ships were required to give promissory notes for the duty for which they were liable. From this initiative the imperial maritime customs service was to derive.

In 1858 Alcock was appointed the first consul-general in Japan. His principal concern was the implementation of the rights gained by Lord Elgin under the treaty of Edo, of 26 August 1858. Using the methods he had employed in China, he insisted that the Japanese government comply strictly with the agreement on the opening of treaty ports. Alcock, like other Westerners in Japan at that time, did not fully comprehend the relationship between the Bakufu, the government of the shogun, and the imperial court in Kyoto. The Bakufu, forced to make concessions to the Western powers, had earned the hostility of many Japanese, including the ronin, masterless samurai, who adopted the slogan 'Revere the emperor, expel the foreigner'. They committed a series of attacks on foreigners, and on 5 July 1861 a group of ronin attacked the British legation. Alcock was unharmed, but the incident convinced him of the merit of allowing the Bakufu to postpone the opening of the ports.

In 1862 Alcock returned to England on leave. He was knighted, and on 8 July he married Lucy Lowder (d. 1899), widow of the former Anglican chaplain of Shanghai. He contributed to the display of Japanese arts and crafts at the 1862 exhibition, and his own collection of Japanese art was later on show in London. In the following year he published The Capital of the Tycoon, an account of his three years' residence in Japan and of his journeys to the interior. He suffered the embarrassment of being criticized in parliament for his alleged indifference to Japanese religious feelings. In 1864 he returned to Edo. It was mainly due to his influence that a naval attack was made on the batteries of Choshu, the fief most openly opposed to the Bakufu. These batteries guarded the Strait of Shimonoseki, the entrance to the Inland sea. This event played an important part in convincing Choshu loyalists that the expulsion of the foreigners was impossible, and that in future they should direct their actions against the Bakufu. Soon afterwards Alcock was recalled to London for consultations.

In 1865 Alcock was appointed minister-plenipotentiary at Peking (Beijing). There he conducted many delicate negotiations with the Zongli Yamen, the prototype foreign office. In 1868 he reluctantly sanctioned the use of British gunboats to support Hudson Taylor of the China Inland Mission, whose mission had been attacked. His main concern was treaty revision. In October 1869 he concluded the Alcock convention, a draft agreement which recognized Chinese interests and set the relationship between the two countries on a more equal footing. It was denounced by British merchants as too favourable to China, and was not ratified by the British government.

In 1871 Sir Rutherford retired and settled in London. In his retirement he interested himself in hospital nursing establishments and actively supported many charitable institutions. He was president of the Royal Geographical Society from 1876 to 1878 and vice-president of the Royal Asiatic Society from 1875 to 1878. He continued to write, and in 1878 published Art and Art Industry in Japan. In 1881 he became the first chairman of the British North Borneo Company. Sir Rutherford died at his home, 30 Old Queen Street, London, on 2 November 1897, and was buried four days later at Merstham, Surrey. He left no children, but his stepdaughter, Amy Lowder, married Sir Lewis Pelly.


  • A. Michie, The Englishman in China during the Victorian era as illustrated in the career of Sir Rutherford Alcock, KCB, DCL, 2 vols. (1900)
  • The Times (3 Nov 1897)
  • The Times (8 Nov 1897)
  • P. D. Coates, The China consuls: British consular officers, 1843–1943 (1988)
  • G. Fox, Britain and Japan, 1858–1883 (1969)
  • R. Alcock, The capital of the tycoon: a narrative of three years' residence in Japan, 2 vols. (1863)


  • University of Bristol Library, corresp. and papers
  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Sir Henry Burdett
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to Lord Kimberley
  • TNA: PRO, Foreign Office records
  • TNA: PRO, letters to Lord Hammond, FO391


  • Lock & Whitfield, photograph, pubd 1877, NPG [see illus.]
  • L. A. de Fabeck, sketch, repro. in Michie, Englishman in China
  • photograph, Mansell collection; repro. in Coates, China consuls
  • photograph, repro. in Michie, Englishman in China

Wealth at Death

£8544 11s. 1d.: probate, 25 Nov 1897, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]