Grey, William (1818-1878) (DNB00)

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Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 23
Grey, William (1818-1878)

by Alexander John Arbuthnot

GREY, Sir WILLIAM (1818–1878), lieutenant-governor of Bengal and governor of Jamaica, was fourth son of Edward Grey, bishop of Hereford, a son of Charles, first earl Grey [q. v.] His mother was a daughter of James Croft, esq., of Greenham Lodge, near Newbury, Berkshire. Grey matriculated at Christ Church, Oxford, 19 May 1836, aged 18 (Foster, Alumni Oxon.), but left the university without a degree on being appointed by his cousin, Lord Howick (now third Earl Grey), to a clerkship in the war office. While serving in the war office he was nominated to a writership in the Bengal civil service, the nomination having been placed at the disposal of his uncle, the second Earl Grey, by Sir Robert Campbell, director of the East India Company. Entering Haileybury College in January 1839, he passed out in July 1840, and reached India on 27 Dec. in that year. He was not remarkable for studious habits in early youth. At Christ Church he incurred the displeasure of the dean, Dr. Gaisford, in April 1837 by ‘his indolence and inattention.’ In his first term at Haileybury he was rusticated on account of a late and disorderly wine party in his room (Letter from Principal Le Bas to Viscount Howick, 25 Feb. 1837). He made up for these delinquencies, however, in his second and third terms, and passed out of college after a residence of little more than two terms. From an early period in his Indian life he devoted himself unremittingly to his duties, and speedily established a character for industry and practical ability, combined with high principle and singular independence of judgment. After holding various subordinate offices in the districts of Lower Bengal, he was appointed in 1845 private secretary to the deputy-governor, Sir Herbert Maddock, and subsequently served for some years in the Bengal secretariat and in the home and foreign departments of the government of India secretariat. In April 1851, at the special request of the directors, he was appointed secretary of the Bank of Bengal, and discharged the duties with marked ability until 1 May 1854, when he became secretary to the government of Bengal on its being constituted a lieutenant-governorship. In January 1857 he left India on furlough, but in consequence of the mutiny returned in November of the same year, and after officiating for some eighteen months in temporary appointments, one of which was that of director-general of the post-office, he was appointed by Lord Canning, in April 1859, secretary to the government of India in the home department. Three years later he became a member of the council of the governor-general.

Grey's administrative capacity was displayed to great advantage as a member of the supreme government of India. During the greater part of the time Sir John Lawrence was governor-general, and between him and Grey there was considerable difference of opinion on questions of the greatest moment. It was natural that the views of the two men on public affairs should be largely influenced by their very different antecedents. Their opinions notably differed with reference to the treatment of the taluqdars and the subordinate proprietors and tenants in Oudh—a question on which the chief commissioner in Oudh, Sir Charles Wingfield, held views directly opposed to those of the governor-general. It was mainly due to Grey's intervention that this question was solved by a compromise which furnished probably as equitable a settlement as was possible in the circumstances of the case. In other matters, and especially in resisting certain retrograde proposals made by Sir Charles Trevelyan when financial member of council, Grey exercised a salutary influence on the government. While strongly opposed to the policy of excessive centralisation, which had cramped the energies of the provincial governments, he successfully opposed a proposal for decentralising the postal department. He was also a staunch opponent of the income-tax, holding that it was totally unsuited to the circumstances of India.

In 1867 Grey succeeded Sir Cecil Beadon [q. v.] as lieutenant-governor of Bengal. The Bengal and Orissa famine had lately come to an end. As a member of the governor-general's council he had taken an active part in discussions regarding the settlement of the land revenue in Orissa and other cognate questions which the famine had brought into prominence, and very shortly after his assumption of the government he had to consider and report upon various suggestions affecting the entire constitution of the government of Bengal, made partly in Mr. (now Sir) George Campbell's report on the famine, and partly at the India office. One proposal was to the effect that the Bengal legislative council should be abolished, that the lieutenant-governorship should cease to be a separate and distinct office, and that the duty should be discharged by one of the members of the governor-general's council, who, subject to the control of the governor-general in council, should be empowered to make laws for what are known as the non-regulation districts, and that for the districts of Bengal proper and of Behar all legislation should be entrusted to the governor-general in council. From these suggestions Grey emphatically dissented, designating the last as ‘a very startling example’ of a vacillating policy, ‘if six years after introducing the experiment of a local, and in some sense a representative, legislature in Bengal, we suddenly abolish it and relegate all local legislation to the general legislature of the empire.’ ‘If there was one part of India,’ he added, ‘in which the native public were entitled to have a real share in legislation, it was the lower provinces of Bengal.’ Indeed it was ‘possible,’ he wrote, ‘to look forward to the time when a local legislature,’ or some local consultative body, should take part in regulating the expenditure of local taxation. So far from acquiescing in any reduction in the functions of the local government, he recommended that the constitution of the government of Bengal should be assimilated to that of the governments of Madras and Bombay, where the administration is conducted by a governor and an executive council. This discussion ended in the maintenance of the status quo in Bengal, but Assam was shortly afterwards constituted a separate chief commissionership. Although Grey's particular recommendation for strengthening his government was not adopted, his minute probably disposed for ever of the proposal to re-establish the system under which Bengal had been administered previously to 1854.

During his government of Bengal Grey opposed the proposal to impose local taxation in the form of a land cess, as a means of providing primary education. But he did not object to the imposition of local taxation for roads and other works of material utility. His objections to the educational tax were based partly upon the terms of the permanent settlement of Bengal, and partly upon the impolicy and injustice, in his opinion, of requiring the landholders to defray the cost of elementary schools for all classes of the rural population. Grey's views did not commend themselves to the government of Lord Mayo or to the secretary of state, but were supported by several members of the council of India.

Grey retired from the government of Bengal in February 1871, a year before he had completed the usual term of office, amid general expressions of keen regret throughout Bengal, and efforts were made to induce him to withdraw his resignation. In other parts of India, too, it was felt that when Grey left the country India had lost her best public servant.

Grey remained in England without employment until March 1874, when he somewhat reluctantly accepted the government of Jamaica. He spent three comparatively uneventful years in that post. During the latter part of the time his health was much broken, and he carried with him to England in March 1877 the seeds of the malady, of which he died at Torquay on 15 May 1878.

Grey was twice married, first in 1845 to Margaret, daughter of Welby Jackson, esq., of the Bengal civil service, who died in 1862; and secondly in 1865 to Georgina, daughter of Trevor Chicheley Plowden, esq., of the same service, who survived him. He left five sons and four daughters.

[India Office and Colonial Office Records; family papers; personal recollections.]

A. J. A.