Rutherford Alcock

Sir Rutherford Alcock, KCB (1809 - 2 November, 1897) was the first British diplomatic representative in Japan. See Heads of the United Kingdom Mission in Japan.

Early life

Alcock was the son of the physician, Dr. Thomas Alcock, who practised at Ealing, near London. As he grew up, Alcock followed his father into the medical profession. In 1836, he became a surgeon in the marine brigade which took part in the Carlist War, gaining distinction through his services. Alcock was made deputy inspector-general of hospitals. He retired from this service in 1837.

Service in China

In 1844, he was appointed consul at Fuchow in China, where, after a short official stay at Amoy, he performed the functions, as he expressed it, " of everything from a lord chancellor to a sheriff's officer." Fuchow was one of the ports opened to trade by the Treaty of Nanking, and Alcock had to perform an entirely new role with regard to the Chinese authorities. In doing so, he earned a promotion to the consulate at Shanghai. He worked there until 1846 and made it a special part of his duties to superintend the established Chinese government and lay out the British settlement, which had developed into such an important feature of British commercial life in China.

Service in Japan (1858-64)

In 1858, he was appointed consul general in the newly opened empire of Japan, and in the following year was made minister plenipotentiary and he opened the first British legation in Japan within the grounds of Tōzen-ji in Takanawa, Edo (now Tokyo).

In those days, foreign residents in Japan faced some danger, with noticeable Japanese hostility to foreigners (sonnō jōi). In 1860, Mr. Alcock's native interpreter was murdered at the gate of the legation, and in the following year the legation was stormed by a group of ronin from the fiefdom of Mito Han, whose attack was repulsed by Mr. Alcock and his staff.

In 1860 he became the first foreigner to climb Mount Fuji.

Later years

Shortly after these events he returned to England on leave on March 1862, and was replaced in Japan by Colonel Neale. Alcock had already been made a Commander of the Bath (CB) (1860). In 1862 he was made a Knight of the same order (KCB), and in 1863 received an honorary Doctorate of Laws from Oxford University.

In 1864, he returned to Japan, and after a year's further residence he was transferred to Peking, where he represented the British government until 1871, when he retired. But though no longer in official life, his leisure was fully occupied. He was for some years president of the Royal Geographical Society, and he served on many commissions. He was twice married, first in May 1841 to Henrietta Mary Bacon (daughter of Charles Bacon), who died in 1853, and second (on 8 July 1862) to the widow of the Rev. John Lowder. His second wife died on 13 March 1899.

Alcock was the author of several works, and was one of the first to awaken in England an interest in Japanese art. He tried hard to learn the language and even wrote a text book. His best-known book is The Capital of the Tycoon, which appeared in 1863. He died in London on 2 November 1897. (R. K. D.)


See also

  • Cortazzi, Hugh 1994, 'Sir Rutherford Alcock, the first British minister to Japan 1859-1864: a reassessment', Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan (4th series) 9: pp. 1-42.
  • Michie, Alexander. The Englishman in China During the Victorian Era: As Illustrated in the Career of Sir Rutherford Alcock. 2 vols. Edinburgh, London: W. Blackwood & sons, 1900.


  • Perrin, Noel (1979). Giving up the gun. Boston: David R. Godine. ISBN 0879237732.

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