Alcock was the son of the physician, Dr. Thomas Alcock, who practised at Ealing, near London. He was named John Rutherford Alcock, but dropped the John very early. 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)
Alcock opened the second British legation in Japan within the grounds of Tōzen-ji in Takanawa, Edo (now Tokyo), the first being at Hiogo (Kobe), under Sir Harry Parkes and the vice-consul Frank Gerard Myberg (also known as Francis Gerard Mijburg and Frans Gerard Mijberg, died January 18th 1868 buried at Kobe). He saw
"peace, plenty, apparent content, and a country more perfectly cultivated and kept, with more ornamental timber everywhere, than can be matched even in England", Sir Rutherford Alcock, 1860.
In those days, foreign residents in Japan faced some danger, with noticeable Japanese hostility to foreigners (sonnō jōi). In 1860, 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 Alcock and his staff.
In 1860 he became the first non-Japanese to climb Mount Fuji.
Service in China (1865–69)
Shortly after these events he returned to England on leave in 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 1869, when he retired.
Although no longer in official life, he remained active. He was for some years president of the Royal Geographical Society, and he served on many commissions. The official Japanese section at the 1862 International Exhibition in London was prepared by Sir Rutherford and included his own collection. This is considered one of the most important events in the history of Japanese art in the West and a founding date for English Japonism in the decorative arts, the Anglo-Japanese style. From 1882-93 he was chairman of the British North Borneo Chartered Company.
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 textbook. His best-known book is The Capital of the Tycoon, which appeared in 1863, whilst the Mikado`s Seat was at Kyoto. He died in London on 2 November 1897, and is buried at Merstham in Surrey. (R. K. D.)
- Notes on the Medical History and Statistics of the British Legion of Spain; Comprising the Results of Gunshot Wounds, in Relation to Important Questions in Surgery (1838)
- Life's Problems: Essays; Moral, Social, and Psychological (1857)
- Elements of Japanese Grammar, for the Use of Beginners (1861)
- Catalogue of Works of Industry and Art, Sent from Japan by Rutherford Alcock (1862)
- The Capital of the Tycoon: a Narrative of a Three Years' Residence in Japan (1863)
- Correspondence with Sir Rutherford Alcock Respecting Missionaries at Hankow, and State of Affairs at Various Ports in China (1869)
- Despatch from Sir Rutherford Alcock Respecting a Supplementary Convention to the Treaty of Tien-Tsin, Signed by Him on October 23, 1869 by China (1870)
- Chinese Statesmen and State Papers (1871)
- Art and Art Industries in Japan (1878)
- Handbook of British North Borneo: Compiled from Reports Received from Governor Treacher and from other Officers in the British North Borneo Company's Service by Colonial and Indian Exhibition (1886)
- List of Ambassadors of the United Kingdom to Japan
- List of Westerners who visited Japan before 1868
- "The Englishman in China during the Victorian era : as illustrated in the career of Sir Rutherford Alcock"
- The first British Ambassador to Japan was appointed in 1905. Before 1905, the senior British diplomat had different titles: (a) Consul-General and Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary, which is a rank just below Ambassador.
- Perrin, Noel. (1979). Giving Up the Gun, p. 90
- WorldCat Identities: Alcock, Rutherford Sir 1809-1897
- 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.
- Hugh Cortazzi. (2004). British Envoys in Japan 1859-1972. Folkestone, Kent: Global Oriental. ISBN 9781901903515; OCLC 249167170
- Perrin, Noel (1979). Giving up the gun. Boston: David R. Godine. ISBN 0-87923-773-2.
- Denney, John. Respect and Consideration: Britain in Japan 1853 - 1868 and beyond. Radiance Press (2011). ISBN 978-0-9568798-0-6
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- UK in Japan, Chronology of Heads of Mission