Dictionary of National Biography, 1927 supplement/Lyall, Charles James

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LYALL, Sir CHARLES JAMES (1845–1920), Indian civil servant, and Orientalist, was born in London 9 March 1845. He was the eldest son of Charles Lyall, banker, of Stoke Green, near Slough, by his wife, Harriet, daughter of John Matheson, of Attadale, Ross-shire. He was educated in London at King's College School and King's College, and at Balliol College, Oxford; and in the open competition for the Indian civil service held in 1865 he obtained the first place. Arriving in India in 1867, he held minor posts in the North-West Provinces and in the government of India secretariat until 1880, when he was given the C.I.E. and transferred to Assam as acting secretary to the chief commissioner. He was confirmed in this post in October 1883, and held it (with several short periods of service as acting judge and commissioner of the Assam valley districts) until August 1889, when he was summoned to Calcutta to officiate as secretary to the supreme government in the home department. In November 1890 he was confirmed in that employment, and he retained it until he took furlough in 1894, after officiating for a few months as chief commissioner of Assam. He returned to India in December 1895, and was appointed chief commissioner of the Central Provinces, holding this post until his retirement from the service in July 1898. He had been gazetted K.C.S.I. twelve months before.

Upon his return to England Lyall joined the India Office as secretary of the judicial and public department. In that capacity he served for twelve years, retiring in 1910. Political agitation in India, and the attempt to appease it by the introduction of the Morley-Minto reforms, made his period of service a difficult one; and behind the scenes Lyall's experience and cool judgement were of great value. Among minor activities may be mentioned the part which he played in the foundation of the London School of Oriental Studies, and his deputation to three Oriental Congresses (1899, 1905, 1908). In the administration of the Royal Asiatic Society he took a leading share until his death.

From his Oxford days Lyall had studied Eastern languages, especially Hebrew and Arabic; and while in India he published a Sketch of the Hindostani Language (1880), Translations of Ancient Arabic Poetry (1885), and a Guide to the Transliteration of Hindu and Muhammadan Names (1885). Later (1907–1908) he wrote introductions to two of the Assam ethnographical monographs, and edited a third. His chief devotion, however, was to the early literature of the Arabs, and on this subject he published a series of works, viz. A Commentary … on Ten Ancient Arabic Poems (1891–1894), The Dīwāns of ‘Abīd ibn al-Abras (1913), The Mufaddalīyāt: An Anthology of Ancient Arabian Odes, 2 vols. (1921), and The Poems of ‘Amr son of Qamī’ah (1919). The translations which he appended to the texts were particularly successful in combining an accurate rendering with a poetical diction which imitated more or less the metres of the originals. The merit of his work was widely recognized, and honorary degrees were conferred upon him by the universities of Oxford, Edinburgh, and Strassburg. He was elected a fellow of the British Academy and of King's College, London. His death took place in London 1 September 1920.

Lyall married in 1870 Florence, elder daughter of Captain Henry Fraser, of Calcutta, and had by her two sons and five daughters.

[Official records; obituary notices in The Times, 3 September 1920, and in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, October 1920; private information.]

W. F.