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John Wallace Downie Southern Rhodesia High Commissioner 1930-1934

The Honourable John Wallace Downie, C.M.G.
Southern Rhodesia High Commissioner

The Hon. John Wallace Downie C.M.G.

John Wallace Downie was the eldest son of Christopher Downie and his wife Margaret Peddie, born at 114 Kidston Street, Hutchesontown, Glasgow on 28 December 1876. At that time, Christopher was a guard on the Caledonian Railway but by 22 May 1880 when his third son William James, was born he had been promoted to Stationmaster at Glenboig in Lanarkshire.

John was educated at Gartsherrie Academy in Coatbridge and left school to join the Caledonian Railway at the age of 14 in 1890. In the 1891 Census in Glenboig, shortly before the family moved to Lanark on his father's taking up the important post of Stationmaster there, his occupation is given as Boy Porter. These days, it is unusual for a boy of any intelligence to leave school at the first opportunity but it was different in 1890. It is clear that John Wallace Downie had a keen intellect and he soon made his way in the world. At his funeral in 1940, Presbyterian Minister Kennedy Grant had this to say about John Wallace Downie:

... he used to the full his very real native ability and forged for himself a place among the makers of the Colony. By reading, travel and human contacts he had stored his mind richly so that he was able to see the country’s domestic problems in the light of the larger problems of the world.

He left Scotland as a young man, and many years later he remarked:

It was the glamour of the Old Cape Colony and the opportunity that railway development offered in that Colony to young men that caught my fancy and prompted me to try my future overseas. I arrived in the Cape for the first time in August 1897, and after a very few weeks I found myself transported to the railhead on the borders of Rhodesia; then into Rhodesia itself; and there I have remained ever since, taking my share in the ups and downs of the country, and enjoying every minute of it.
(speech to the Royal Empire Society, 13 Jan 1931, pg 2.)

In 1897, the railhead of the the Cape Government Railway took him initially to Francistown, then part of the Tati Concession which was annexed by Bechuanaland Protectorate (now Botswana) in 1911. Subsequently he moved to the Rhodesian Section, to what was then Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. While in Francistown, he was Postmaster for a period, and during the second Anglo-Boer War he was a member of the volunteer Francistown Defence Force from October 1899 until it was dispanded eight months later in March 1900.

John returned to Scotland in 1900 to study for a year in Glasgow, returning to Southern Rhodesia in 1901.

1902 saw him going into business in Bulawayo, Salisbury and Beira in the firm of Cotton and Downie; he appears to have worked as a broker and agent, and may well have been involved in the transportation of goods via the Cape Gauge (3'6") railway which had been completed between Salisbury (now Harare) and the port of Beira in Mozambique. He is on record as having purchased a Broker's Licence from the British South Africa Company in 1911 for £10 per year. The end of the Second Anglo-Boer War in 1902 paved the way to the restoration of the rail link south to the Cape, and the completion of the Victoria Falls bridge in 1905 linked Southern Rhodesia with Northern Rhodesia (modern day Zambia) via Bulawayo.

On 20 July 1910 in Bulawayo, John married Clara Mortimer Carrol, daughter of expatriate Scots George Andrew Carrol born in Aberdeen and Janet Cecilia Ross from Kilsyth, who had married in Cape Town on 20 July 1880. Clara was born in Church Street, Cape Town on 27 February 1884 and moved to Bulawayo with her family in 1898, where her father ran the Cuthberts shoe store. Clara moved to Salisbury where John had built what was to be the family home, still lived in by his grandson Rob Blair: Bonnington. The house was named after Bonnington Linn on the Clyde, not far from Christopher Downie's home in Lanark.

John Wallace Downie and Clara Mortimer Carrol

Two children were born to John Wallace Downie and Clara Mortimer Carrol at Bonnington - Clara Isabella Ross Downie on 2 March 1912 and Robert Gordon Downie in May 1918. Clara went on to marry Dr Dyson Blair in 1944, exactly two weeks after her brother had been killed on board a troopship which was torpedoed in the Indian Ocean on the way to Singapore.

Following on from the name Bonnington, the Blairs named their first house Cora Linn after another of the Falls of Clyde.

John became General Manager of the Salisbury Farmers Co-Op Ltd in 1920 and continued in employment there until 1924, but he had moved into politics, campaigning with the Rhodesia Party against union with South Africa in the 1922 Referendum and winning the right for self determination for the country.

He was elected an M.P. at the 1923 General Election for the first Southern Rhodesia Parliament and became a Cabinet Minister under Sir Charles Coghlan, as well as Chairman of the Rhodesia Party 1923-1925. During his period as an M.P. which ended in 1930, he held the posts of Colonial Secretary, Minister of Agriculture and Minister of Mines and Public Works - not bad for a boy who had left school at fourteen.

The following notice appeared in the London Gazette Supplement of 3 June 1929, page 3669:

Chancery of the Order of Saint Michael and Saint George.
Downing Street, 3rd June, 1929.
The KING has been graciously pleased, on the occasion of His Majesty's Birthday, to give directions for the following appointments to the Most Distinguished Order of - Saint Michael and Saint George: —
To be Ordinary Members of the Third Class, or Companions, of the said Most Distinguished Order: —
The Honourable John Wallace Downie, Minister of Mines and Public Works, Southern Rhodesia.

Cheque for the mineral rights in Southern Rhodesia

The Hon. John Wallace Downie, C.M.G. gave up his seat in the Southern Rhodesia Parliament in 1930 when was appointed Southern Rhodesia High Commissioner in London, in succession to Sir Francis Newton. One of his tasks was to sign the cheque made out to the British South Africa Company for the mineral rights in Southern Rhodesia on 28 June 1933 - for the sum of £2 017 068 9s 10d.

He retired from the post in 1934 and returned to Salisbury, where he remained in public life as Chairman of Rhodesia and Nyasaland Airways, the predecessor of Central African Airways.

John Wallace Downie died on 22 August 1940 at the Salisbury Hospital of complications following an operation five an a half weeks previously. His wife Clara survived him by 24 years and passed away at the age of 80 at Bonnington on 10 October 1964.