Lord Thurlow: High Commissioner to Nigeria and to New Zealand


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The Independent Online

Lord Thurlow was a lifelong civil servant who rose through the ranks, serving in many of the Empire's former colonial capitals, to become the High Commissioner in New Zealand and Nigeria. Upon retirement he sat in the House of Lords, where he specialised in foreign affairs and was a strong exponent of the need for a thorough education system in developing countries.

Born in March 1912, Francis Edward Hovell-Thurlow-Cumming-Bruce was the second son of the 6th Baron Thurlow, Reverend Charles Edward, and his wife Grace Catherine Trotter. Francis arrived minutes before his identical twin Roualeyn, and the pair would remain exceptionally close until Roualeyn's death, as retired Lord Justice of Appeal, in June 2000.

They attended Shrewsbury School where both (Francis 1929-30, Roualeyn 1930-31) were head boy. They went to Cambridge, studied Economic Analysis under JM Keynes and took Firsts, Francis in the Classical Tripos at Trinity, Roualeyn in Classics and Economics at Magdalene.

Francis's contemporary at Trinity was James Klugman, later a leading Communist, Soviet spy and friend of Donald Maclean. Like others, they were influenced by John Strachey, a former Labour MP, who wrote The Coming Struggle for Power – An Examination of Capitalism, in which he stated that the Great Depression of the 1930s indicated that capitalism had reached its final stage of monopoly capitalism. It was a time of poverty, mass unemployment and the rise of Hitler. The marchers who had walked from the North-east reached Cambridge in early 1934, and for many privileged undergraduates the encounter was a something of a shock. Both brothers joined Klugman in the Communist Party of Great Britain.

The brothers who soon abandoned communism, as did Strachey later on; by 1935, having passed the Civil Service exam, Francis was recruited to the Department of Agriculture for Scotland. Two years later he moved to the Dominions Office and was the resident clerk when Mussolini's army invaded Albania in April 1939.

During the war Cumming-Bruce was posted to the offices of the UK High Commissioner in New Zealand and Canada. Returning to London in 1946 he attended the Commonwealth PMs' meeting in London, served with the UK delegation at the Paris Peace Conference and the UN General Assembly, and became PPS to the Labour Secretary of State, Lord James Chuter Ede.

In 1949 he married Yvonne Wilson and was soon posted to Delhi as head of the Political Division under the High Commissioner, Sir Archibald Nye. It was an unsettled period and Nye wanted to show Indians that Britain was fully accepting of its independence. Cumming-Bruce, seen as a new breed of civil servant with no ties to the colonial past, was charged with developing contacts and networking within the Indian government and India's cadre class. It was here that he developed his love of India, in particular Indian religions.

He was later posted to Accra on the Gold Coast, where he served as Adviser on External Affairs to the Governor. This meant monitoring the actions of Kwame Nkrumah, the nationalist leader, who eventually became the first president and first prime minister of Ghana when it gained independence in 1957. Cumming-Bruce served briefly as Deputy High Commissioner before a spell as Deputy High Commissioner in Ottawa – an experience he found uplifting from a scenic perspective but dull socially. In 1959 he was appointed High Commissioner in New Zealand, a country for which he gained a deep fondness. A contemporary described him as having an "unworldly manner" but New Zealanders were flattered to have such a distinguished gentleman in their midst.

In 1963, he was posted to Nigeria as High Commissioner; his term was interrupted three years later by a series of bloody coups and civil war which left thousands dead including the Federal Prime Minister, Sir Abubakar Balewa, known as "The Golden Voice of Africa", whose body was found dumped at the side of the road near Lagos six days after he was ousted. Ghana's President, Kwame Nkrumah, was suspected of involvement.

In 1967,he was replaced by Sir David Hunt, and following a short sojourn in Whitehall, where he did some preliminary work on Britain's possible entry into the EEC, he was given his final posting, largely ceremonial, as Governor and Commander-in-Chief of the Bahamas.

Retiring in 1972, Lord Thurlow ,as he now was following the death of his eldest brother, Harry, a year earlier, took his place in the Lords and became known as an eloquent, good-humoured speaker but a formidable cross-bencher, his interests including foreign affairs, education and mental health. When Tony Blair's Labour government sought to reduce the number of hereditary peers in 1999, Lord Thurlow decided not to remain.

In his free time he enjoyed jogging and practised the Chinese spiritual discipline Falun Dafa. The barony is inherited by his son, the Hon Roualeyn Robert Cumming-Bruce.

Martin Childs

Francis Edward Hovell-Thurlow-Cumming-Bruce (the 8th Lord Thurlow); born 9 March 1912; CMG in 1957, KCMG in 1961; married 1949 Yvonne Wilson (died 1990; two daughters, one son, and one son deceased); died 24 March 2013.