The Viscount Alexander

Viscount Alexander

The news that King George VI had appointed the then-Viscount Alexander as Governor General caused excitement across the country. He was a hero of the Second World War, and was considered Britain's greatest military commander since the Duke of Wellington.

In addition to his reputation for military genius, Lord Alexander had a charismatic gift for making friends and communicating with people. This made him a popular and successful Governor General. He took his duties seriously – indeed, when he was asked to kick the opening ball in the 1946 Grey Cup final, he spent a number of early mornings practising. This was no token ceremonial punt!

He saw his role as a vital link between Canadians and their head of State, and was eager to convey that message wherever he went. His interest in personally communicating with Canadians never waned, whether he was meeting with residents of the Yukon Territory, speaking at a Canadian Club luncheon in Ottawa, talking with members of various First Nations or with a villager in rural Ontario. He travelled the country extensively, eventually logging more than 184,000 miles during his five years as Governor General.

On his first major visit out west, he was presented on July 13, 1946, with a totem pole made by Kwakiutl carver Mungo Martin, to mark his installation as an Honorary Chief of the Kwakiutl, the first white man to be so honoured. The totem pole remains a popular attraction on the front lawn of Rideau Hall. During a later visit in 1950, he was made Chief Eagle Head of the Blackfoot Indians.

Lord Alexander's term – the post-WWII years – was an era of change for Canada. The post-war economy boomed in Canada, and a new prosperity began. In Letters Patent of 1947, King George VI gave the Governor General all of His Majesty's powers and authorities in respect of Canada. The document continues to be the source of the Governor General's powers today. And in 1949, at the Commonwealth Prime Ministers Conference, the decision was made to use the term "member of the Commonwealth" instead of "Dominion".

That same year, Newfoundland entered Confederation, and Lord Alexander visited the new province that summer. But by 1950, Canada was once again embroiled in war, as Canadian Forces fought in Korea against Communist North Korea and the People's Republic of China. Lord Alexander visited the troops heading overseas to give them his personal encouragement.

Lord Alexander hosted various dignitaries, including Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip who came to Canada for a Royal Tour in October 1951, less than two years before the Princess would become Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada. The Alexanders hosted a square dancing party which the Princess and Prince attended. Lord Alexander also travelled abroad on official trips, visiting President Truman in the United States in 1947, and paying a State visit to Brazil in June 1948.

Generally, though, the Alexanders led an informal lifestyle. Lord Alexander was an avid sportsman, enjoying fishing, golf, hockey and rugby. Fond of the outdoors, he enjoyed attending the harvest of maple syrup in Ontario and Quebec, and personally supervised the tapping of the maple trees on the grounds of Rideau Hall. He was also a passionate painter, and in addition to setting up a studio for himself, in the former dairy which still stands today at Rideau Hall, he organized art classes at the National Gallery of Canada. Lady Alexander became an expert weaver while in Canada, and had two looms in her study.

Lord Alexander encouraged education in Canada. Many Canadian universities gave him honorary degrees, and he also received Honorary Doctor of Laws from Harvard and Princeton Universities in the United States. He also received the Order of Merit from King George VI in 1959.

In 1951, Lord Alexander received the chandelier that hangs in Rideau Hall's Ballroom. It was a gift from the British government to thank Canada for their contributions during World War II.

In early 1952, after his term was extended twice, Lord Alexander left the office of Governor General, after British Prime Minister Churchill asked him to return to London to take the post of Minister of Defence. Lord Alexander returned to England quietly, due to the sudden death of King George VI on February 6, 1952. He was temporarily replaced by an administrator prior to the appointment of the Right Honourable Vincent Massey.

Life before and after Rideau Hall

Lord Alexander was educated at Harrow, in Great Britain, and then pursued a military career by attending the Military College at Sandhurst. He was commissioned in the Irish Guards in 1911. He commanded a battalion of his regiment on the western front in the First World War and was wounded twice. For his meritorious service in the field, he was awarded the Military Cross in 1915, the Distinguished Service Order in 1916 and the Legion of Honour.

On October 14, 1931, he married Lady Margaret Diana Bingham, second daughter of the Earl of Lucan. They had four children, including one adopted during their stay in Canada.

At the outbreak of war in 1939, Lord Alexander was a Major-General in command of the First Division. He had been promoted in 1937, at the age of 45, making him the youngest general in the British army. In 1942, he commanded the forces in Burma and then became Commander-in-Chief in the Middle East. He was promoted to Field Marshal in 1944 after the capture of Tunis in 1943 and subsequently captured Rome in 1944. In May 1945, he imposed terms of unconditional surrender on the German armies in south-western Europe.

On March 1, 1946, he was elevated in the peerage as Viscount Alexander of Tunis and in December 1946 he was made a Knight of the Garter.

After serving as Governor General, he returned to England in 1952 to join the British House of Commons. He was created 1st Earl Alexander of Tunis and Baron Rideau of Ottawa, and of Castle Derg, county Tyrone on March 14, 1952. That same year, he was sworn into the British Privy Council, and was also a Canadian Privy Councillor.

Canada remained close to the Alexanders' hearts and they returned often to visit family and friends, and also because Lord Alexander held a directorship of the Aluminum Company of Canada. Lord Alexander died in 1969. His funeral was held June 24, 1969, at St. Georges Chapel, Windsor Castle, and his remains are buried in the churchyard of Ridge, near Tyttenhanger, his family's Hertfordshire home. Lady Alexander died in 1977.