John was educated at Eton, where he earned a reputation for cleverness, and at Christ Church, Oxford.
As Lord Wodehouse, he served as undersecretary of foreign affairs in Lord Aberdeen’s coalition government (1852-1854) and in Lord Palmerston’s first ministry (1854-1856). He was appointed British minister at St. Petersburg in 1856, at the end of the Crimean War, and held that post until 1858. He was once again appointed undersecretary of foreign affairs in Lord Palmerston’s second ministry, holding that post from June 1859 until August 1861. In December 1863 he was sent off to Denmark, ostensibly to congratulate King Christian IX on his accession to the Danish throne but in reality to try to resolve the Schleswig-Holstein territorial dispute; the attempt failed. Wodehouse also served as undersecretary for India in 1864, and in November of that year was appointed lord lieutenant of Ireland—an appointment he held until the collapse of the Liberal government in June 1866. His main difficulty in Ireland was to deal with the Fenians, a partly rural revolutionary movement. In an attempt to hamper the movement, he took action to suppress the paper the Irish Press. At the end of his period of office he was created Earl of Kimberley, Norfolk.
With the formation of the Gladstone government in December 1868, Kimberley became Lord Privy Seal, gaining a place in the cabinet. He succeeded to the Colonial Office in 1870.
In 1891 Kimberley became leader of the Liberal Party in the House of Lords. He was ap¬pointed secretary for India again in Gladstones fourth administration, in 1892, simultaneously acting as Lord President of the Council. The pinnacle of his political career came when he was appointed foreign secretary in Lord Rosebery’s ministry, in March 1894. He held this post a lit- de longer than fifteen months, but his tenure was undistinguished, as he achieved little beyond a faltering agreement with the Congo Free State. (The latter offered Britain a strip of land along the frontier of German East Africa, but later withdrew the offer due to German opposition.)
After the Liberal governments defeat in the 1895 general election, Kimberley was in opposition for the rest of his life. He resumed the leadership of the Liberals in the House of Lords on the resignation of Lord Rosebery in 1896, remaining unreservedly committed to the Empire. He was generous in his support for Lord Kitchener after the overthrow of the Khalifa at Om- durman; and unlike most members of the Lib¬eral Party, he strongly supported British operations in the Boer War in South Africa. By this time, however, he was ill, and he soon had to relinquish his responsibilities with the Liberal Party in the House of Lords to Lord Spencer, the Liberal deputy leader in Lords. Kimberley died in London on 8 April 1902.
He was never a popular political figure but was an efficient and effective politician who led the Liberals in the House of Lords after Lord Rosebery’s retirement in 1896.
He can be counted among the many politicians who gained high office and were subsequendy ignored by historians, although his title was used to name a famous diamond town in southern Africa.
On 16 August 1847 he married Lady Florence, daughter of Richard Fitzgibbon, the third and last Earl of Clare.