He was educated at King Edward VI School, Louth, Lincolnshire, of which his uncle was headmaster, and was admitted solicitor in 1882.
In 1885 he became an assistant law clerk to the Board of Trade, and was appointed Assistant Solicitor to the Board in 1888 and private secretary to the President of the Board of Trade in 1892. In 1893 he became Secretary to the Railway Department and in 1901 Permanent Secretary to the Board of Trade. In 1907 he was appointed Permanent Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies and in 1910 Vice-Chairman of the Development Commission.
In 1912 he was appointed to the Privy Council and appointed Additional Civil Lord of the Admiralty.
In 1917 he was elected secretary to the Irish Convention, set up to explore solutions to the Irish Home Rule question. In 1919 he chaired the Franchise Committee looking into the suffrage in India.
Thereafter he entered business, taking a number of directorships. On 1 November 1917 he was created Baron Southborough, of Southborough in the County of Kent.
The lifeboat RNLB Lord Southborough (Civil Service Number 1) (Ontario 688) was named after him.
In 1906 he went to South Africa as a member of the committee to determine the constitutions of the Transvaal and the Orange River Colony.