'The Workings of My Own Mind': Private Correspondence of the Governor-General of Canada, 1839-1867

Historians of 19th-century British-Canadian relations use the rich archive of Colonial Office despatches, supplemented by the private correspondence of governors-general and colonial secretaries where such collections survive. This article contends that, from 1839 to 1866, the period of the Canadian Union, the private correspondence constituted a parallel channel of communication, operating on a quasi-official and semi-continuous basis. Private correspondence was used to discuss issues too sensitive for the official record, material that was deliberately omitted from despatches. The correspondence was controlled by the secretary of state, who shared it as his discretion with political colleagues and bureaucrats. Its major shortcoming lay in the difficulty in securing continuity of information between successive ministers, as was shown in the British response to the Canadian federation initiative of 1858. Private correspondence gradually became less important after Confederation as Canada ceased to be a problem to British policy-makers. The correspondence between governors-general and colonial secretaries should be considered apart from current historical debate on imperial networks. The article appeared in British Journal of Canadian Studies, xxxi (2009), 63-86.



Students of British-Canadian inter-governmental relations in the mid-nineteenth century can call upon two forms of archival material. The official record, assembled by the Colonial Office [CO], comprises despatches between the secretary of state (colonial secretary) and the governor-general, complete with drafts and minutes that trace their evolution (Buckner, 1985; Messamore, 2006).[2] Most office-holders also used the unofficial and usually more speculative channel of private correspondence, some of which have been published in scholarly editions.[3] While using both groups of sources, historians tend to treat the private correspondence as subsidiary to the 'CO' files.[4] Broadly, there are three reasons for this. The first is the natural assumption that the official record must constitute the priority source, to which the private correspondence, with its often pungent expression, forms the icing on the archival cake. The second is that, in contrast to the government files, which have been available in toto for over a century, individual collections of private correspondence have emerged over time, and some have disappeared altogether: extracts from Elgin's letters were published as early as 1872 (Walrond, 1872), but correspondence between Lord Stanley and Sir Edmund Head on the 1858 federation initiative only came to light in 1976.[5] A third, if more speculative explanation, may lie in the influence of the concept of the 'official mind of imperialism' applied to British expansion in the later nineteenth century, which perhaps gave credence to shorthand formulae assuming a 'Colonial Office view' of Canadian issues (a doubtful concept) and so obscured the importance of the parallel streams of formal and private communication.[6]

            The thesis of this paper is that private correspondence between individual colonial secretaries and governors-general should not simply be considered as personal, off-the-record communications, as might be the case in studies of mainstream political history, but rather as part of a quasi-official and near-continuous channel operating in parallel to the formal Colonial Office archive.[7] Pressure of work upon cabinet ministers usually meant that the governor-general was the more prolific letter-writer, but the colonial secretary was the 'owner' of the correspondence. Private letters were shared with, or withheld from, political colleagues and bureaucratic subordinates as the minister saw fit. This study highlights the years between 1839 and 1866, when issues defining the colonial relationship were of importance to British policy-makers and the office of governor-general was generally held by appointees with political experience or personal standing sufficient to engage in confidential discussion at the heart of government on a basis of intellectual and social equality.

            To emphasise the importance of private correspondence between governors and ministers is to downgrade the qualitative, though not the quantitative, importance of formal despatches. There were indeed good reasons why speculative or scandalous material should not appear in the official record. Precisely because they dealt with public policy issues, despatches might be released on either side of the Atlantic. 'A public despatch to the Governor,' warned one civil servant, 'is a despatch to his Council, and his Parliament, and the people of Canada.'[8]  When the newly arrived Arthur Gordon commented unfavourably on New Brunswick politics, the Duke of Newcastle reminded him 'always to bear in mind that Colonial Despatches may be called for in Parliament.'[9] Newcastle favoured confidential despatches, but Sir Edward Lytton feared that even confidential official correspondence 'would perhaps be always defective in sincerity & candour.'[10] His comment probably reflected a campaign by New Brunswick politicians for control over the governor's official correspondence. (MacNutt, 1984: 372-73) Colonial Office bureaucrats were justifiably alarmed: such a concession would mean that despatches were 'tinctured by local party views' and would reduce the governor 'to a nonentity and his despatches to mere mockeries.'[11] Sir John Harvey, governor of Nova Scotia, received no encouragement when he argued in 1849 for a parallel series of 'demi-official' communications. Fundamentally, nothing seemed to be so secure as the private letter. 'We see every day the carelessness with which official papers are treated,' complained one official in 1857.[12]

            Some of the issues stemming from the informality of private correspondence had emerged before 1839. In 1834, the incoming Conservative colonial secretary, Lord Aberdeen, had been unable to frame instructions to the governor-general, Lord Gosford, because his Whig predecessor withheld access to his personal letters. (Buckner, 1985b: 186). 'Whether a dispatch begins My Lord, or My dear Lord, and ends with "the Honour to be" or "Your's [sic] truly"...', commented Lord Brougham in 1838, 'made no kind of difference in its nature, provided the matter of it was public business.'[13] But to Lord Sydenham, sent across the Atlantic to unite the Canadas, the distinction was important. If a Conservative minister were to succeed his friend Lord John Russell, he felt that he could not 'discuss matters with the Secretary of State on equal terms as if I was still his Colleague in the Cabinet'.  In September 1841, there was a double hiatus in the relationship: Sydenham died and Russell left office when Lord Melbourne's Whig cabinet resigned. The new colonial secretary, Lord Stanley, discovered that Sydenham had 'communicated, if at all, privately with Lord John, of which correspondence we have hardly a trace.'[14] Russell does not seem to have shared his source of information with Colonial Office staff: on one occasion, the senior civil servant, James Stephen, had noted on the official correspondence that Sydenham 'scarcely furnishes the materials for forming any opinion' about his actions.[15]

            In fact, Russell had helped to smooth the transition.  As soon as it became clear that Melbourne's ministry could not survive the verdict of the 1841 general election, Russell identified Stanley as his probable successor and passed on to him selected letters from Sydenham.  Russell consoled himself in electoral defeat by getting married, and a prolonged honeymoon tour made it difficult for Stanley to return the correspondence, but he assured his opponent that he had kept the letters 'strictly and exclusively to myself.'[16] This was not entirely true. Stanley had reported to his leader, Sir Robert Peel, his receipt of Sydenham's letters, 'which I should not be justified in showing to any one else.' He had, however, summarised their contents in order to alert the prime minister-designate to the urgent need to appoint a new governor-general, Sydenham having indicated his intention to resign.[17]  Russell sent two further letters after the change of ministry, one of which Stanley forwarded to Peel, assuring him that the contents were hardly worth the decipherment of Sydenham's semi-legible handwriting.[18]

            Despite his own experience of discontinuity in the official record, Stanley also placed private correspondence at the centre of his handling of   Canadian relations. 'If I write you too many private letters you must remember your own parting injunctions to me,' remarked Sydenham's successor, Sir Charles Bagot.[19] For one Colonial Office official, T.W.C. Murdoch, the private channel was tantalising but impenetrable. Murdoch had recently returned to London after serving on the governor-general's staff. From his junior position in the bureaucracy, he supported Bagot's policy of conciliating the French. However, the point of private correspondence was that it bypassed officialdom. Bagot's confidential letters, he reported, were 'of course' passed immediately to Stanley 'and I could not therefore see them.'[20] Stanley himself did not always correctly identify the category of communication. 'I had thought this was a Private letter,' he noted apologetically after detaining a document, 'I see it is a confidential despatch.'[21] Later, Bagot asked him to treat a confidential despatch sent by the previous mail as a private letter, to remove a censorious character sketch of Sir Allan MacNab from the official record.[22] Stanley declined, but the presence in the Colonial Office archive of four volumes of indeterminate documentation, dating from 1842-43, suggests an overlap between official and private correspondence in Stanley's mind.[23]

            The private correspondence failed as a channel of communication during the 1842 political crisis over responsible government. It failed not because of any innate shortcomings but because the colonial secretary, Lord Stanley, did not attempt to use it, and he did not use it because he had nothing to contribute. It was certainly true that the secretary of state had to cope with a monumental workload, and all the more physically tiring in an era when most business was conducted longhand, but Canada was one of the most important responsibilities of his portfolio. As he left London Bridge Station for a holiday in Brighton in May 1842, two letters from Bagot were delivered to him through the carriage window. The governor-general was facing the incompatibility of the two chief aims behind the imperial policy of uniting Upper and Lower Canada. It was impossible both to govern the province in harmony with the Assembly and to assimilate the French Canadians, since the threat to their identity forced them to operate with a degree of political unity unattainable among factious anglophones. Stanley's response fell little short of denial of reality. Bagot, he joked, was beginning to sound as if he had fallen 'in one of your Canadian Rapids, where it was useless to pull against the stream.' The minister urged the governor-general to 'bend your back to your oar like a man, and above all, take none into your crew who will not bend their backs too'. Extending the fatuous metaphor, Stanley delighted that Bagot had not offered places to Reformers John Neilson and Robert Baldwin since they would be 'cutting crabs, or backing water when they are most wanted for "Hard all".' The letter's political analysis did not get much beyond the non-sequitur that, although it would be undesirable to resurrect the Upper Canada Family Compact, it was Compact personnel who provided the most desirable political support in the province.[24]

            In the face of this obtuse analysis, Bagot tried again. 'I have sometimes thought that, notwithstanding my frequent private communications to you, I have never sufficiently explained in them what I am about'. In carrying the Union, Sydenham had engaged in 'a public, and something like a private quarrel on his part with the whole mass of the French inhabitants'. Inheriting a fait accompli, Bagot had the chance to involve all sections of the population with the government of the new structure.[25] Early in July, he re-stated the 'infinitely perplexing' contradiction of the policy he was expected to follow: in the long term, immigration might overwhelm the political power of French Canada, 'but in the mean time I may lose my majority in the Legislature'.[26] A fortnight later, his detailed analysis of political factions demonstrated the centrality of the French and pointed to an attempt to win them over.[27] In mid-August he wrote, 'I await with great anxiety your answer to my French Canadian letter by the last mail.'[28] By mid-September, he was expressing 'severe disappointment' at the absence of guidance.[29]          

            Late in August, Stanley finally faced the need to respond. Commenting that the account was 'not very promising', he sent Bagot's letter of 20 July to Peel, seeking his advice and expressing the fear that 'the Union is a failure and the Canadas are gone.'  Peel replied fully and promptly, suggesting that Bagot should be advised to conduct a rearguard action in the hope of exploiting divisions within the responsible government coalition.  On 1 September, Stanley duly offered the private advice of 'Divide et Impera', although he recognised that the strategy would probably fail. By the time this letter arrived, it was too late: Bagot had remodelled his executive council.[30]

            Notwithstanding his evasive handling of Bagot 's ministerial crisis and his own doubts about the appropriateness of the untraceable private channel, Stanley corresponded unofficially and extensively with Bagot's successor, Sir Charles Metcalfe.[31] The distinction in Stanley's mind between official and private communications remained mystical. The challenge of resisting further encroachments upon the governor's authority raised issues 'of so delicate a character that I prefer answering them in the shape of a private letter, rather than in that, even, of a Confidential despatch.'[32] But this private letter was submitted to the prime minister, the Duke of Wellington and the Court. Peel pronounced it 'excellent', though he evidently believed that some issues were too sensitive for even the most secret communication: ' I would omit the passage respecting the loss of the Canadas ─ though I entirely concur in it.' From Prince Albert came the sage comment that 'almost everything depends upon Sir Charles's prudence of conduct.'[33] The fluid boundary between a private unofficial communication and a confidential despatch was further blurred by Stanley's decision to include his letter to Metcalfe in a special series of Colonial Office files. Thus the key document, but not the supporting process of consultation, was available to his successors ─ a public-spirited gesture but one that rendered the nuances between the various categories all the more puzzling. (Pugh, 1964: 49) The distinction eluded Metcalfe's executive council. Although tories opposed to responsible government, they were annoyed when Stanley refused to amend the Union Act to allow French to be used in parliament. As soon as the ailing Metcalfe was replaced by the stopgap military governor-general, Lord Cathcart, they demanded to see the colonial secretary's private letter on the subject.[34]     

The best-known private correspondence of governor-general and colonial secretary from the period is that between Elgin and Grey, which quickly became controversial and also legendary. 'Lord Elgin managed all his business by a long private correspondence with Lord Grey, with whom he was on terms of relationship & confidence,' commented Herman Merivale, the permanent under-secretary for the colonies, in 1858.[35] Merivale was misleading on one point. Although, in 1847 after a whirlwind romance, Elgin married one of Grey's many nieces, his appointment owed nothing to dynastic connections. A limited amount of family gossip lubricated the channel of communication, but it was a private correspondence that stemmed from their official relationship. It became public knowledge in March 1849, when the government was pressed in parliament to explain why no official despatch had been received from Elgin reporting on the Rebellion Losses Bill, an issue perceived to have a major imperial dimension. The revelation was handled clumsily by the government frontbench in the House of Commons, with the Home Secretary, Sir George Grey ─ Lord Grey's cousin ─ appearing to prompt the under-secretary for colonies, Benjamin Hawes, the token middle-class junior minister, with the information.[36] Thus a confidential channel of communication was made to seem yet another act of Whig exclusivism by the arrogant Grey clan. The Peelite Morning Chronicle complained that the British parliament and people  were 'condemned ... to look quietly on, and to leave a matter in which they are so deeply interested to be settled in a private correspondence between Lord Grey and Lord Elgin.' (Morning Chronicle, 8 May 1849) The Tory Morning Herald was even more caustic, remarking that parliament had been properly snubbed for intruding into a private matter, and sarcastically praising Elgin for troubling to write letters at all. The Herald condemned a device that enabled Lord Grey 'to play the game of fast and loose ─ to know from his private letters all that is going on, while, since the information is not clothed in the form of a dispatch, he, officially ... knows nothing.'[37] It added its own imaginary pastiche of a letter from Elgin ('I cannot write you any despatches just yet, things are so queer.') in which the sentiments, if not the vocabulary, were remarkably close to the real-life correspondence. (Morning Herald, 4 May 1849) The prime minister, Lord John Russell, defended the practice, but Stanley raised the real objection that 'private correspondence is the private property of the Secretary of State, and, when he leaves the office he now holds, will be removed by him from the public records'.[38] As Elgin himself had commented the previous year, if Grey was forced to resign, 'the Colonial Minister will have little idea of what is going on in Canada unless you let him see my private letters to you.'[39]

             Grey apparently regarded the correspondence as semi-official. One letter found its way into the Colonial Office files, while five more were quoted in a confidential memorandum on the Clergy Reserves. An extract from a letter regarding Canada's need for Reciprocity with the United States was forwarded to the foreign secretary, Lord Palmerston. An extract was also forwarded to Sir Edmund Head, governor of New Brunswick.  On one occasion, Grey sent Elgin 'rather a formal private letter about the Canadian currency in order that you may if you like communicate it to your Council'.[40] Doughty's published edition of the Elgin-Grey papers focuses upon the wide-ranging exchanges between the two individuals, masking the extent to which the London end of the correspondence was shared with others ─ although access was very much under Grey's control.  Despite the unfortunate impression created by the House of Commons incident that Hawes was excluded from the Whig aristocratic circle, the under-secretary saw at least some of the incoming letters. 'Lord Elgin's letter makes one anxious,' he commented during the tense summer of 1849.[41] But the hidden third party to the Elgin-Grey correspondence was the prime minister himself.

            Archival evidence indicates that Lord John Russell read at least eighteen of Elgin's letters, and it is likely that every letter of importance was passed to him. Even so, Grey kept control of the process, and never indicated to the governor-general that his letters were being read by others. Describing as 'interesting' Elgin's account of the transfer of power to the LaFontaine-Baldwin Reformers in January 1848, Russell added: 'It will require much tact on his part to deal with his new Ministry ─ pray tell him from me not to oppose them except right & justice are so clearly against them that he cannot help it.'[42] Grey's reply to Elgin amplified the advice, but without any attribution to the prime minister.[43] Similarly, Grey acted as a filter for the grand projects that flew from Russell's pen, most of them into oblivion. Early in August 1849, Russell swung behind the idea of Confederation. Grey promptly reported to Elgin that 'Lord John Russell in a letter I had from him yesterday expresses a good deal of anxiety as to the prospects of Canada,' without noting that the prime minister had been reading the governor-general's private reports. Grey attempted to use Russell's endorsement of 'the old idea of forming a federal union of all the British Provinces' to stimulate action on a project that Grey favoured but Elgin distrusted.[44] But when, two weeks later, Russell came up with a scheme to admit MPs from British North America to the House of Commons, Grey did not bother to forward the idea to Canada.[45]

            The triangular correspondence gradually became bitter in tone. Elgin was an outspoken letter-writer and Russell did not take kindly to criticism. Early in 1850, the prime minister exploded when Elgin failed to praise a set-piece oration he had delivered in the House of Commons on colonial policy. Russell had closed his speech with the largely conventional and eminently Whiggish sentiment that the larger colonies might eventually claim independence, but that 'whatever may happen, we of this great empire shall have the consolation of saying that we have contributed to the happiness of the world.'[46] Elgin had deplored this 'sting in the tail', which reflected the pernicious idea 'that the Colonial is a provisional existence'. But Elgin's own ideas about the future of the British-Canadian relationship were hardly conventional. He expected it to be 'modified', possibly to allow the election of the governor-general, a token imperial garrison of 2,000 men at Quebec, and the British government being 'represented  in the Colony by an Agent ─ something like a Resident in India'.[47] Russell's fury can still be seen in the near-illegibility of his comments, as he condemned 'Lord Elgin's despondency about Canada', and complained that 'now because I say that a time may come when the two countries may amicably dissolve their ties, he turns round and, & holds me up as encouraging separatism.' Elgin's subtle view of an indefinitely extended and infinitely flexible relationship he did not find appealing: 'anything would be better than an elective Governor & an English garrison of 2000 men. Better blow up Quebec & all our fortifications in Canada!' Russell's parting shot, that 'with more courage Lord Elgin may still do well', shows how hard it was to shake his pre-formed dogmas, but at least the triangular correspondence provided some means of challenging them.[48]

            When Grey left office in February 1852, Elgin paid tribute to their correspondence. 'I have been permitted to keep up such a constant & familiar communication with you as has enabled me at once clearly to appreciate your own views & sentiments and fully to expound my own'.[49] But would the channel of communication transfer to the incoming minority Conservative government, which was outside the Whig-Peelite free-trade consensus, with its unexpected and eccentric choice of colonial secretary, the country squire Sir John Pakington? The new minister was slow to establish contact with Elgin, and may even have considered replacing him. In September, Merivale (the senior civil servant at the Colonial Office since 1848) suggested that private correspondence was the most appropriate way of handling the 'anomalies' of responsible government, '(the institution itself being scarcely tried yet)'. He argued that 'unreserved communication between the Secretary of State and the Governor, not be despatch, either public or private, but by letter' was 'the most convenient course, though by no means free from objection'.[50] Pakington's reaction was neither rapid nor especially enthusiastic: in mid-October he simply asked Elgin to write to him from time to time on matters of importance.[51] Elgin agreed that 'it is for the interest of the Queen's service that the Governor of a colony such as this should have it in his power to correspond occasionally on a strictly confidential footing with the Secretary of State.'[52] But the link was barely established before the ministry fell, and Pakington was replaced by the Duke of Newcastle, who quickly sought to reinvigorate the private channel.

            But something more than 'our old friendship' motivated Newcastle. 'I understand that whilst Lord Grey was Colonial Secretary it was your habit to correspond privately with him on most subjects connected with Government and that in consequence the Official Despatches were less frequent from Canada than from most other far less important Colonies.' Far from insisting on more formal communication, Newcastle had 'no doubt that there were many advantages in this practice' and asked Elgin 'to renew your former habit.' It was 'of the greatest importance to be kept acquainted with current events in so important a Territory and where official despatches may be liable to objection such private information can be obnoxious to none.'[53] Elgin duly promised to supply information 'over & above that contained in formal despatches.' For the next eighteen months, until Newcastle moved to the War Office, the correspondence flourished, and the connection transferred smoothly to his successor at the Colonial Office, Sir George Grey.[54]

            Then a period of instability in British politics disrupted this private channel between minister and governor, but also demonstrated its durability. In 1855, five politicians successively held the office of colonial secretary: the office finally settled upon the undynamic Henry Labouchere who held it until early 1858. At the same time, Canada had a new governor-general. Sir Edmund Head was a baronet with no landed estate, a gentleman rather than aristocrat, and hence at the edge of the magic circle that ran Victorian Britain. A one-time Oxford don and former Poor Law Commissioner, Head was closer in sympathy to those of the senior Colonial Office civil servant, Herman Merivale, who had held an Oxford Chair. Hence Head 'got into a way of writing his narration of events in the form of long private letters' to Merivale, although latterly he was also in direct contact with Labouchere.[55] (Head was also a close friend of the chancellor of the exchequer, George Cornewall Lewis, with whom he carried on a confidential correspondence that gave him a direct line to the heart of the cabinet.) This informal adaptation to an unofficial practice contributed to a dangerous breakdown in communications during 1858, when the office of colonial secretary passed through another round of brief tenures.

            In February 1858, Lord Stanley became colonial secretary in the incoming Conservative minority government. The son of the Lord Stanley of the 1840s, who was now Earl of Derby and prime minister, Stanley was interested in colonial issues and (unusual for the time) had visited Canada. Labouchere passed on to him recently received letters, a further indication of the extent to which the channel had become semi-continuous, while Merivale 'on several occasions' showed the new minister 'the interesting letters, which you have addressed to him.' Noting that 'many matters cannot be conveniently discussed in despatches, which, sooner or later, are liable to become public', Stanley urged Head to 'communicate freely' and in strict confidence.[56] Head expressed appreciation of Stanley's 'readiness to receive private communications from me', adding: 'I shall readily avail myself of the permission which you so kindly give'.[57] Their correspondence promptly moved into high gear, with near-disastrous consequences.

            Writing probably in March 1858, Head had alerted Merivale to the likelihood that the union of the British North American provinces was likely to emerge as a political issue. The letter was passed to Stanley who read it 'with great interest' and, writing at some length, indicated his support for any such movement. Head responded to his invitation to comment on the issue 'fully & confidentially' with a long analysis early in April.[58] But almost immediately after he would have received Head's reply, Stanley was moved to the India Office, to deal with the overwhelming crisis of the Mutiny. Fast-tracked into the cabinet as his successor was the novelist Edward Bulwer Lytton, who was conscious both of his inexperience and of the government's vulnerability in the House of Commons. Thus the news, early in September, that the governor-general of Canada had endorsed exploratory talks on intercolonial union alarmed Lytton, who was pressed by Prince Albert to recall Head in disgrace. Merivale came to his defence. 'The truth is, as I can say from several years of intimate acquaintance with the minds of successive Colonial secretaries, on this point, that the official correspondence is intentionally meagre and defective,' he explained. Explicit commentary on Canadian affairs in official correspondence 'would indeed be exceptionally convenient on both sides, but would probably sever the slight connexion between us and Canada without delay.'[59] Merivale also asked Stanley if he had written 'semi-officially or privately' to Head about Confederation.[60] Lytton was only grudgingly mollified, complaining to Derby at the 'inconvenience' of the practice. Of Grey's correspondence with Elgin, 'no vestige remains in the office.' Head had been on the point of being recalled in disgrace when it was discovered that he 'was warranted in the step he had taken ... by a private correspondence with Lord Stanley,' but no evidence of this could be produced if the issue were raised in parliament. 'The Evil is great', he complained, although he accepted that there was no easy solution. 'Each Secretary of State thus carries away with him from the Office the records of the policy he had suggested or sanctioned', leaving his successors only 'despatches courteously framed so as to avoid all that could irritate Canadian parties or enlighten English Ministers.'[61]

Soon after, any intention Lytton might have had to resolve the basic issue was overtaken by an administrative disaster. Since 1815, Britain had occupied the Ionian Islands, not as a colony with a governor but as a 'protectorate' ruled by a 'high commissioner'. The British presence was unwelcome to the inhabitants, who demanded union with Greece. In 1857, the high commissioner, Sir John Young (later governor-general of Canada), wrote a confidential despatch recommending withdrawal from the archipelago, a document that the Colonial Office put into 'Confidential Print', for limited circulation among ministers and officials. Unluckily, a copy was stolen from the Colonial Office library and Young's explosive despatch was published, causing considerable embarrassment. (Shannon, 1982: 367-72)  The episode did not necessarily discredit the confidential despatch as a medium for discussion of policy options, since private correspondence was as liable to be stolen as official documents: indeed, Lytton included in a Confidential Print volume on Confederation a letter he had written privately to Head.[62] Nonetheless, to Lytton at least, an aura of sanctity still surrounded private correspondence. In preparing the Confidential Print volume on Confederation, he consulted Stanley about the use of his predecessor's letters to Head on the subject. 'To a certain extent they would be useful,' he wrote, '─ partly in justifying Sir E. Head's course in initiating the question, ─ partly to enable the Cabinet to see whatever may be urged in favor of Federation.' (Lytton was not an enthusiast for uniting the provinces.) 'But I think you will agree with me that they must not be printed with the other papers, nor referred to. I have not shown them to a single Member of the Cabinet.' Stanley was less squeamish, noting that Lytton could 'do what he pleases' with the correspondence.[63]

            Lytton's concerns were discarded when Newcastle returned to the Colonial Office in 1859. For almost five years he conducted an extensive private correspondence not simply with the governor-general of Canada but with all his governors.(Gibson, 1963)[64] Colonial Office staff found themselves side-lined. One noted that a despatch from Lord Monck during the Canadian ministerial crisis of May 1862 contained 'not a word about the dissolution of the Government. The Private Letter to the Duke of Newcastle will doubtless supply the information.'[65] Even the permanent under-secretary, Frederic Rogers, reported 'I see very little of the Duke.' Newcastle mainly worked at home, calling at the Colonial Office for about an hour on his way to the House of Lords. Since he usually had appointments in that time, 'it is very difficult to catch him at all, and you must dispose of what you have to say shortly and clearly when you do see him', which Rogers conceded was 'no bad thing.' (Marindin, 1896: p. 227, family letter of  17 June 1860). This might seem to suggest that officials were recommending policy options without access to vital information, but much of Newcastle's British North American correspondence was intentionally discursive. Monck explained  that 'I wish in my private communications with you that you should be made aware of the workings of my own mind with regard to the different questions that come before me, and should see that I do not arrive at my conclusions without looking at both sides of the case.'[66] But the private channel could also be put to practical use. With the writer's permission, Monck read a stern letter from Newcastle on Canadian defence to the incoming Reform premier, Sandfield Macdonald, who was thought by the British to be unreliable on the issue. 'I think it has had a very salutary effect upon him,' the governor-general reported.[67] When ill health forced Newcastle's resignation early in 1864, his successor Edward Cardwell was 'scarcely yet warm in my seat at the Colonial Office' before making contact with Monck. The two had served as junior ministers in Palmerston's first government, and it was hardly necessary for the new secretary of state to pledge unreserved correspondence with the governor-general.[68]

The last potential pre-Confederation hurdle for the private channel of communication came in the summer of 1866 when, once again, Derby formed a minority Conservative administration. Monck and the new minister, Lord Carnarvon, were strangers, but the governor-general did know the incoming parliamentary under-secretary, C.B. Adderley, whom he asked 'to introduce me to my new chief' at long range. 'I have found so much advantage ─ both public and private ─ from having been on terms of private intimacy with both my previous masters,' Monck explained to Adderley, 'that I feel you will do me a great kindness and the public some service if you can make my relations with the new Secretary of State something more than those of mere official connection.' Adderley passed on the request to Carnarvon, commenting that 'I suppose he wants to be on as unofficial terms with you as he was with his personal friend Cardwell.'[69] Carnarvon agreed that 'public interests will be promoted by the private interchange of our opinions on Colonial questions of such importance as those now pending.'[70] Carnarvon used the unofficial channel to signal concern at reports of John A. Macdonald's alcohol problem, in a confidential private letter so cautiously framed that the offender's name was not specified.[71] But Carnarvon was disappointed when Monck failed to brief him about a controversial extradition case, the Lamirande affair, which threatened to embroil the British and French governments.[72] In the event, Monck was to spend much of the winter of 1866-67 in London, and Carnarvon soon resigned in protest against Disraeli's policy on parliamentary reform.

            The authoritative history of post-Confederation British-Canadian relations suggests that there was only 'scattered and episodic private correspondence between the Governor-General and the Colonial Secretary after 1867.' (Farr, 1955: 55) But this view of a sudden decline may partly reflect gaps in the archival record. Although no collection of private papers survives for the first post-Confederation governor-general, Sir John Young (Lord Lisgar), Barbara J. Messamore has shown that enough can be traced through other archives to demonstrate that he actively briefed Lord Kimberley throughout the Washington Treaty negotiations.[73] His successor, Lord Dufferin, declared that it was his practice 'not to trouble Kimberley with private letters unless subjects of real importance should pass under my consideration.' However, Dufferin had a habit of magnifying his concerns and, as Messamore puts it, wrote 'a torrent of letters to the colonial secretary' during the Pacific Scandal.[74] As he explained to Kimberley, 'it is rather a relief to me talking to you on paper.'[75] Returning to the Colonial Office with the incoming Conservative government in 1874, Carnarvon was quick to urge his 'old friend ... to communicate with me fully & unreservedly.' Their collaboration was to produce one of the richest collections of British-Canadian personal correspondence, but paradoxically it seems to have been based so firmly upon mutual trust that neither party ever formally defined its function.[76]

Lord Lorne corresponded with each of the three ministers he served under, but the link was no longer so important.[77] The Earl of Derby (the Lord Stanley of 1858) did take seriously a private warning from Lorne that his successor, Lansdowne, might be a target for Irish terrorists, although this information originated with Sir John A. Macdonald's government, using the private channel for its own purposes. (Vincent, 2003:  586; Pope, 1921: 301) [78] Derby's correspondence with Lansdowne in 1884-85 confronted major issues, but it was intermittent and short-lived.  In an interesting sidelight on British attitudes, Derby described Confederation as something 'which we desired and brought about'. However, in response to talk of incorporating the West Indies, the two agreed that the Dominion was 'already big enough, and the danger is lest it should fall to pieces by its own weight.' Indeed, Derby was disturbed by reports of secessionist tendencies in the Maritime provinces. 'They were brought in at first against their will: but were thought to have become reconciled to the Union'.[79]

As the office of governor-general became increasingly ceremonial, so appointees retained the social prestige that gave them access to inner political circles in Britain. But the Canadian agenda no longer required such close attention. 'If the rest of the Empire gave as little trouble as Canada,' [the Colonial Office] would have an easy time,' Derby wrote to Lorne in 1883.[80] Joseph Chamberlain told Lord Minto that he 'expected a letter every three months' but the dynamic potential of their correspondence was demonstrated in June 1899 when the colonial secretary warned of the likelihood of war with the Transvaal. In a letter marked 'Secret', Chamberlain in effect asked for 'a really spontaneous request' from Canada to contribute troops to the imperial war effort, notably failing to specify that the governor-general should consult his ministers. (Stevens and Saywell, 1981, i: 28-29, 54-57, 65-67, 92-93;  Millar, 1980: 86-87)[81] But with Minto's successor, the fourth Earl Grey, the private channel became a rivulet of trivia. Where governors like Elgin and Dufferin had discussed their influence over ministers, Grey vented his impotent annoyance by calling Laurier the 'courteous old Procrastinator', forever stone-walling his requests for action. The governor-general was even ceasing to be the crucial link with London in defence crises. When Canada established its own navy, Grey's contribution was little more than a request that Queen Mary should personally embroider a maple leaf into its first flag, signing it by stitching 'a darling little M' that would cement Canadian loyalty to the empire. (Messamore, 1998: pp. 388, 385) However, Grey merits the gratitude of historians for having presented the archive of his uncle, the third earl, first to the Dominion Archivist, Arthur G. Doughty and through him to the Public Archives of Canada. Perversely, although the condition he attached to the gift ─ the publication of the Elgin-Grey correspondence of 1846-52 ─ did not happen until 1937, its availability led historians to acclaim it as 'the most enlightening series of documents in existence on mid-Victorian colonial policy', a collection that took 'precedence of all other Canadian material of that period'. (EGP, i: v; Morison, 1919: viii-ix ) Its value cannot be doubted, but it has taken almost a century of discovery of other such material to appreciate that the Elgin-Grey correspondence formed part of a longer-lasting parallel channel of communication.

The thesis advanced here differs from the emphasis in Zoë Laidlaw's study of private correspondence as a form of imperial networking.( Laidlaw, 2005: 94-126) Laidlaw paints a picture of a secondary tier of colonial officials and prominent settlers advancing their personal interests by cultivating contacts in influential circles at home. The private correspondence of governors-general and secretaries of state was explicitly undertaken in the public interest and tacitly regarded as taking precedence over all other channels of communication. Naturally, governors wrote to family and friends. On going to New Brunswick in 1848, Sir Edmund Head began an exceptionally cerebral exchange of letters with his close friend George Cornewall Lewis which continued after Head moved to Canada in 1854. 'This is not the first time that you & I have felt the impossibility of dispensing with confidential & private letters,' he wrote from the eye of a New Brunswick political storm in 1850.[82] Since Lewis was an influential Whig politician and, from 1855, a cabinet minister, their correspondence might be seen as a form of re-insurance by Head, particularly during the instability of Colonial Office tenure in the mid-fifties. However, he was scrupulous in not pushing his friend to support his claims for promotion, specifically dismissing 'any visionary or extravagant expectations' of succeeding Elgin.( Kerr, 1954: 116.) The primacy of the connection between governor-general and secretary of state was asserted in a warning by Newcastle to Monck not to correspond with the London journalist, Abraham Hayward. 'He can never help reading any letter he receives from a Colonial Governor to everybody he meets at the Clubs.' A letter written during the Trent crisis of December 1861 appeared to show that Monck did not share the fear of imminent war with the United States that gripped the political world. Its circulation by Hayward was 'like a flake of snow on a hot iron and did you harm'. Monck took the hint, and made sure that subsequent letters to Hayward avoided contention.[83]

Thus the argument of this paper represents something more than a sub-set of Laidlaw's portrayal of private correspondence as a form of imperial networking. Rather the letters that passed between governors-general and colonial secretaries constituted a quasi-official and near-continuous channel of communication linking imperial and colonial authorities which operated in parallel with the regular mechanism of despatches and without which such formal documentation cannot be fully comprehended. Historians will, it is assumed and hoped, continue to draw upon individual collections of gubernatorial papers for the spice and motivational insight they can inject into specific episodes. But fully to appreciate the relative weight of such material it is necessary to remember Merivale's caveat that the official archive was 'intentionally meagre', and that the private correspondence of the governor-general and secretary of state was the substantive medium for the conduct of mid-nineteenth century British-Canadian relations.



[1] I am grateful to Dr Barbara J. Messamore and to BJCS readers for comments on this article. The title phrase comes from Library and Archives of Canada [cited as LAC], Newcastle Papers, A-308, Monck to Newcastle, private, 13 December 1862.

[2] Buckner, 1985a offers the best introduction to the workings of the 'CO', and has a valuable bibliography. For the office of governor-general, Messamore, 2006.

[3] The principal scholarly editions are Knaplund, ed., 1931, Doughty, ed., 1937 [cited as EGP], de Kiewiet and Underhill, 1955 and Stevens and  Saywell, 1981. Extensive extracts from private correspondence appear in works such as Glazebrook, 1929, Kerr, 1954, Gibson, 1963 and Knox, 1976. Historians have not always observed the distinction between official and unofficial correspondence: despite its title, Glazebrook, 1940 reproduces a despatch.

[4] Perhaps the classic example of a fine scholarly study which deftly blends official and private correspondence is Morrell, 1930, but Morrell played down the latter, insisting that 'the great mass of the correspondence was conducted by the numbered series of despatches' (pp. 37-38). For a reflective study of both categories of source material,  Messamore, 2001. 

[5]  Head's notoriously bad handwriting caused the misfiling of his correspondence as 'Sir Edward Stead', Knox, 1976: 216. A selection from the Sydenham-Russell correspondence was published, with Russell's permission, as early as 1843. (Scrope, 1843):  iii, 297-314.  Morison1919 was probably the earliest study to use both the private papers of Sir Charles Bagot and the Elgin-Grey Correspondence, both by then available in the Public Archives of Canada. 

[6] The concept was assumed but not defined in Robinson et al., 1961, and cf. comment by Ronald Hyam, Hyam, 1999:  258-9. The 'official mind' is foreshadowed in Gibson, 1954.

[7] The Colonial Office historian R.B. Pugh was correct in stating that: 'Nothing ... could prevent Ministers and Governors from writing private letters to one another, especially in an age when members of the two groups were so often related by blood or marriage.' But in the Canadian case, ministers and governors also corresponded even when there was no personal bond. Hence the private correspondence of successive governors-general must be seen not simply as an example of imperial networking but as constituting a quasi-official channel. Pugh, 1964:  49. Laidlaw's work is discussed below.

[8] Hertfordshire County Record Office, Lytton Papers, D/EK 01, memorandum by Merivale, 6 September 1858.

[9] University of Nottingham, Newcastle Papers, NeC 10886, Newcastle to Gordon (copy), private, 14 December 1861 (original in University of New Brunswick, Stanmore Papers 1).

[10] Hertfordshire County Record, Lytton Papers, D/EK 20, Lytton to Derby (copy), confidential, 18 September 1858.

[11] UKNA, CO 188/133, minutes by A. Blackwood and T.F. Elliot, 14-June 1860, fos 158-59.

[12] UKNA, CO217/202, Harvey to Grey, private and 'demiofficial', 4 May 1849, fos 38-41; CO 188/130, minute by A. Blackwood, 4 June 1857, fos. 128-33.

[13] Hansard's Parliamentary Debates, 3rd series [cited as Hansard], xl, col. 183 (18 January 1838).

[14] British Library, Peel Papers, Add. MS 40467, Stanley to Peel (27 May 1842), fos 202-3. Stanley took office at a time of strained relations with the United States but found no record of any instructions to British forces in Canada in the event of war. 'Mr. Stephen is unable to state anything on the subject.'  LAC, Russell Papers, B-970, Stanley to Russell, private, 4 September 1841. (Abbreviations in original documents have been written out in full.) Russell was colonial secretary and C.P. Thomson (from 1840, Lord Sydenham) governor-general, 1839-41. Stanley was colonial secretary 1841-45.

[15] United Kingdom National Archives [UKNA], CO 42/480, minute by Stephen, 16 August 1841, fo. 81. James Stephen was permanent under-secretary (the equivalent of the Canadian 'deputy minister') at the Colonial Office, 1836-47.

[16] LAC, Russell Papers, B-970, Stanley to Russell, 7 August 1841.

[17] British Library, Peel Papers, Add. MS 40467, Stanley to Peel, 19 July 1841, fos 35-6.

[18] LAC, Russell Papers, B-970, Stanley to Russell, private, 5 October 1841; British Library, Peel Papers, Add. MS 40467, Stanley to Peel, private, (3 October 1841), fos 70-1; LAC, Russell Papers, B-970, Stanley to Russell, 17 October 1841. An attack of gout prevented Stanley from dealing promptly with the second letter.

[19] LAC, Derby Papers, A-30, Bagot to Stanley, private, 27 March 1842. Bagot was governor-general 1841-43.

[20] LAC, Bagot Papers, MG24/A14, vol. 4, Murdoch to Bagot, 18 October 1842.

[21] UKNA, CO 42/489, minute by Stanley, 20 March 1842, fo. 16.

[22] LAC, Derby Papers, A-30, Bagot to Stanley, private, 12 October 1842. The despatch is in Glazebrook, 1929: 139-50.

[23] UKNA, CO 537/140-3, and cf. Pugh, 1964: 49.

[24] LAC, Derby Papers, A-30, Stanley to Bagot, private, 17 May 1842.

[25] LAC, Derby Papers, A-30, Bagot to Stanley, private, 12 June 1842.

[26] LAC, Derby Papers, A-30, Bagot to Stanley, private, [10 July 1842].

[27] LAC, Derby Papers, A-30, Bagot to Stanley, private and confidential, 20 July 1842.

[28] LAC, Derby Papers, A-30, Bagot to Stanley, private, 12 August 1842.

[29] LAC, Derby Papers, A-30, Bagot to Stanley, private, 13 September 1842.

[30] British Library, Peel Papers, Add Ms40467, Stanley to Peel, confidential, 27 August 1842, fos 217-20; Peel to Stanley (copy), 28 August 1842; Buckner, 1985b: 266-67; Glazebrook, 1929: 62-64.

[31] Correspondence in LAC, Derby Papers, A-30. Extracts were published at a remarkably early stage: Kaye, 1854), ii: 474-605 passim. Metcalfe was governor-general 1843-45.

[32] UKNA, CO 537/141, Stanley to Metcalfe, copy, private, 29 May 1843, fos 5-20 (draft in CO 537/142, fos 26-47).

[33] LAC, Derby Papers, A-30, Peel to Stanley1, 2 June 1843, Albert to Stanley, 2 June 1843. Wellington's approval was mentioned in Stanley to Albert (copy), 2 June 1843.

[34] UKNA, CO 42/527, Cathcart to Stanley, private, 19 December 1845, fos 390-91. Cathcart communicated the substance, but Stanley's permission was required to hand over the document.

[35] Hertfordshire Count y Record Office, Lytton Papers, D/EK 01, memorandum by Merivale, 6 September 1858. Herman Merivale was permanent under-secretary, 1848-59. Earl Grey was colonial secretary 1846-52, with Benjamin Hawes as his parliamentary under-secretary (junior minister). Lord Elgin was governor-general 1847-54.

[36] Hansard, 3rd series, ciii, 22 March 1849, cols 1124-28, scene described in Manchester Guardian, 24 March 1849 (London Letter).

[37] The spellings 'dispatch' and 'despatch' were used interchangeably at the time.

[38] Hansard, civ, cols 1250-52, 4 May 1849.

[39] Elgin to Grey, private, 27 March 1848, EGP, i: 139.

[40] LAC, Elgin Papers, Grey to Elgin, 26 December 1851. The private letter was in fact a memorandum, EGP, iii, pp. 976-82. Grey also sent an extract of a letter from Elgin on the need for Reciprocity with the United States to the foreign secretary, Palmerston. Southampton University Library, Broadlands MSS, GC/GR/2401/1-2, Grey to Palmerston, 10 May 1851.

[41] University of Durham, Grey Papers, Hawes to Grey, 20 September 1849, probably referring to Elgin to Grey, private, 27 August 1849, EGP, ii, pp. 452-54..

[42] Ibid., Russell to Grey, 15 February 1848, referring to Elgin to Grey, private, 22 January 1848, EGP, i: 118-20.

[43] Grey to Elgin, private, 22 February 1848, EGP, i: 120-21.

[44] University of Durham, Grey Papers, Russell to Grey, 6 August 1849; Grey to Elgin, 8 August 1849, EGP, i: 437- 38.

[45] University of Durham, Grey Papers, Russell to Grey, 19 August 1849.

[46] Hansard, cviii, cols 535-67 (8 February 1850).

[47] Elgin to Grey, private, 23 March 1850, EGP, ii: 608-13.

[48] Grey Papers, Russell to Grey, 19 April 1850.

[49] LAC, Elgin Papers, A-396, Elgin to Grey (copy), 19 March 1852.

[50] CO 42/582, minute by Merivale, 11 September 1852.  Pakington was colonial secretary in a Conservative minority government for ten months in 1852.

[51] LAC, Elgin Papers, A-397, Pakington to Elgin, confidential, 15 October 1852.

[52] LAC, Elgin Papers, A-396, Elgin to Pakington (copy), 6 November 1852.

[53] LAC, Elgin Papers, A-397, Newcastle to Elgin, 7 January 1853.

[54] LAC, Elgin Papers, A-397, Elgin to Newcastle (copy), 28 January 1853. Newcastle was colonial secretary (for the first of two terms) 1852-54. There are ten letters from Sir George Grey (colonial secretary 1854-55) in the collection.

[55] Hertfordshire County Record Office, Lytton Papers, D/EK 01, memorandum by Merivale, 6 September 1858.

[56] Liverpool Central Library, Derby Papers, 920/DER/7, Stanley to Head, copy, private, 6 April 1858.

[57] Ibid., 920/DER/8, Head to Stanley, private, 27 April 1858.

[58] Ibid., 920/DER/7, Stanley to Head, copy, private, 7 April 1858 and 920/DER/8, Head to Stanley, 28 April 1858, also in Knox, 1976:  206-17.

[59] Lytton Papers, D/EK 01, memorandum by Merivale, 6 September 1858. Lytton was colonial secretary 1858-59.

[60] Merivale to Stanley, 8 September 1858, in Knox, 1976: 215.

[61] Lytton Papers, D/EK 20, Lytton to Derby (copy), confidential, 18 September 1858.

[62] Lytton to Head, 24 September 1858 in 'Question of Federation of the British Provinces in America', confidential, November 1858, copy in PRO 30/6/69, Carnarvon Papers, fos 313-21.

[63] Liverpool Central Library, Derby Papers, 920/DER/5/1, Letter book 1858-59, Lytton to Stanley, 8 November 1858, p. 133.  Attitudes to the use of private letters were in flux, as Stanley himself noted in a comment on Lord John Russell's speech resigning from the cabinet in 1855. 'Many found fault with the reading of letters originally private, which however of late years has become an ordinary occurrence.' Vincent, 1978: 127.

[64] When Arthur Gordon of New Brunswick complained about delay in receiving a reply from Newcastle, the Duke pleaded that he was keeping up correspondence with thirty colonial governors. LAC, Newcastle Papers, A-307, Newcastle to Gordon (copy), private, 21 February 1864. Newcastle served his second term as colonial secretary 1859-64.

[65] Minute by Arthur Blackwood, 4 June 1862, CO 42/634, fo. 315. Monck was governor-general 1861-68.

[66] LAC, Newcastle Papers, A-308, Monck to Newcastle, private, 13 December 1862.

[67] Ibid, A-308, Monck to Newcastle, private, 15 August 1862.

[68] LAC, Monck Papers, A-755, Cardwell to Monck, private, 16 April and 11 August 1864. Cardwell was colonial secretary 1864-66.

[69] UKNA, Carnarvon Papers, PRO 30/6/134, Adderley to Carnarvon, undated, enclosing Monck to Adderley, 20 July 1866, fos 31-36. Carnarvon was colonial secretary 1866-67.

[70] LAC, Monck Papers, A-756, Carnarvon to Monck, private, 10 August 1866.

[71] Ibid., A-756, Carnarvon to Monck, private and confidential, October 19 1866.  This was written in reply to a letter from Monck which does not survive but apparently named Macdonald. It may have been deliberately destroyed.

[72] Liverpool Central Library, Derby Papers, 920/DER/12/3/2, Carnarvon to Stanley, private, 24 October 1866.

[73] Messamore, 2006: 115-47. Sir John Young (Lord Lisgar from 1870) was governor-general 1868-1872. Lord Kimberley was colonial secretary 1870-74.

[74] Dufferin to Carnarvon, private, 26 February 1874, de Kiewiet and Underhill, 1955:  4. Dufferin was governor-general 1874-78.

[75] Dufferin to Kimberley, private, 13 October 1873, in Messamore, 2006: 169.

[76] Carnarvon to Dufferin, 23 February 1874, de Kiewiet and Underhill, 1955: 1. Carnarvon served a second term as colonial secretary 1874-78.

[77] This impression is formed generally by Stampp, 1988 and MacNutt, 1955). See also Powell, 1996: 153-57. Lorne was governor-general 1878-83; Hicks Beach (1878-80), Kimberley (1880-82) and Derby (1882-85) were colonial secretaries.

[78] Lansdowne was governor-general 1883-88.

[79] LAC, Derby Papers, A-31, copies of Derby to Lansdowne, private, 18 March 1885, 20 November 1884 and  29 April 1885. Macdonald welcomed the 'high compliment' of Jamaican interest in joining the Dominion but had no intention of involving Canada in Caribbean race issues: Pope, 1921: 311-12, 326, and cf. Winks, 1968. Derby was well-informed about Maritime (in fact, Nova Scotian) secession threats at a very early stage in the campaign. Howell, 1985: 96-114, esp. p.100.

[80] Derby to Lorne, 29 June 1883, Stampp, 1988: 204.  See also Messamore, 1998.

[81] Minto was governor-general 1898-1904. Chamberlain was colonial secretary 1895-1903.

[82] National Library of Wales, Harpton Court Collection, C/1517, Head to Lewis, 1 July 1850.

[83] LAC, Newcastle Papers, A-307, Newcastle to Monck (copy), private, 4 January 1862; A-308, Monck to Newcastle, private, 23 January 1862.  Monck's December 1862 is not included in Carlisle, 1886 but letters of 5 November 1863 and 19 July 1867 are bland (although the former asked Hayward to praise his ministers in the influential Saturday Review), ii: 102-4, 159-60.



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