Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Greg, William Rathbone

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741723Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 23 — Greg, William Rathbone1890Richard Garnett

GREG, WILLIAM RATHBONE (1809–1881), essayist, born at Manchester in 1809, was son of Samuel Greg, merchant, and brother of Robert Hyde Greg [q. v.] and Samuel Greg [q. v.] His father became owner of a mill near Wilmslow in Cheshire, where William Rathbone's childhood was passed. After receiving his education under Dr. Lant Carpenter at Bristol, and afterwards at the university of Edinburgh, Greg became in 1828 manager of one of his father's mills in Bury, and in 1832 commenced business on his own account. In 1835 he married Lucy, daughter of William Henry [q. v.], a physician of Manchester. In 1842 he won a prize offered by the Anti-Corn Law League for the best essay on 'Agriculture and the Corn Laws.' In the same year he was induced by concern for his wife's health to settle in the neighbourhood of Ambleside. The removal unfavourably affected his business, and after a long struggle to avert failure he ultimately relinquished it in 1850. His literary and speculative pursuits had also probably interfered with his success in trade, for in 1851 he came before the world with his 'Creed of Christendom,' the outcome of long study and thought. Mr. Morley has recorded the effect in its day of this contribution to 'dissolvent literature;' it must be said that no work hostile to received opinions was ever so little of a polemic against them, or more distinguished by candour and urbanity. Greg now took distinct rank as an author, writing in 1852 no fewer than twelve articles for the four leading quarterlies, mostly on political or economical subjects. His essay on Sir Robert Peel in the 'Westminster Review,' vol. lviii., was the finest tribute called forth by the statesman's death. His 'Sketches in Greece and Turkey' appeared in 1853. In 1856 Sir George Cornewall Lewis bestowed on him a commissionership at the board of customs, which restored him to independence. From 1864 to 1877 he was comptroller of the stationery office. He had in the interim lost his first wife, and married the daughter of James Wilson of the 'Economist' [q. v.] The only other marked incidents of his life during this period were the successive publications of his works: 'Political Problems for our Age and Country,' 1870; 'Enigmas of Life,' 1872; 'Rocks Ahead, or the Warnings of Cassandra,' 1874; 'Mistaken Aims and Attainable Ideals of the Working Classes,' 1876. He continued to be an extensive contributor to the periodical press, and his essays were collected three times, as 'Essays on Political and Social Science' (1853), 'Literary and Social Judgments' (2nd edit. 1869, 4th edit. 1877), and 'Miscellaneous Essays' (1882 and 1884). He died at Wimbledon 15 Nov. 1881. His son Percy is separately noticed.

In Greg ardent philanthropy and disinterested love of truth were curiously allied to an almost epicurean fastidiousness, which made him unduly distrustful of the popular element in politics. He would have wished to see public affairs controlled by an enlightened oligarchy, and did not perceive that such an oligarchy was incompatible with the principles which he had himself admitted. Little practical aid towards legislation, therefore, is to be obtained from his writings. It was Greg's especial function to discourage unreasonable expectations from political or even social reforms, to impress his readers with the infinite complexity of modern problems, and in general to caution democracy against the abuse of its power. His apprehensions may sometimes appear visionary, and sometimes exaggerated, but are in general the previsions of a far-seeing man, acute in observing the tendencies of the age, though perhaps too ready to identify tendencies with accomplished facts. His style is clear and cogent, but his persuasiveness and impressiveness rather arise from moral qualities, his absolute disinterestedness, and the absence of class feeling, even when he may seem to be advocating the cause of a class.

[Mr. John Morley's account of W. R. Greg in Macmillan's Mag. vol. xlviii., reprinted in his Miscellanies; Burke's Landed Gentry, i. 545; personal knowledge.]

R. G.