Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Grey, George (1799-1882)
GREY, Sir GEORGE (1799–1882), statesman, was the only son of George, third son of Charles, first earl Grey [q. v.], and Mary, daughter of Samuel Whitbread of Bedwell Park, Hertfordshire. His father was a favourite captain of Sir John Jervis. and George was born at Gibraltar while Captain Grey was engaged in the duties of his naval command. Captain Grey retired from active service in 1804, was made superintendent of the dockyard at Portsmouth, and was created a baronet in 1814. Lady Grey was of a strongly religious character, a friend of William Wilberforce, and impressed upon her son in early days a fervent and simple piety which never left him. He was educated by the Rev. William Buckle, vicar of Pyrton, near Tetsworth, Oxfordshire, with whom he stayed till he entered Oriel College, Oxford, in 1817. There he studied diligently, and graduated in 1821, having taken a first class. His original intention was to take holy orders, but after reading theology at home for a time he came to the conclusion that he was not fitted by temperament for clerical work. In 1823 he settled in London to read law, was called to the bar in 1826, and rapidly obtained occupation. In 1827 he married Anna Sophia, eldest daughter of Henry Ryder, bishop of Lichfield, son of the first Earl of Harrowby, and next year succeeded to the baronetcy on his father's death.
Gray's ability and his connections alike marked him out for political life, and after the passing of the Reform Bill in 1832 he entered parliament as member for the newly enfranchised borough of Devonport. He soon made a reputation in the House of Commons as an able speaker, a man of businesslike habits, and of sterling worth, and in 1834 was offered by Lord Melbourne the post of under-secretary for the colonies under Thomas Spring-Rice, afterwards Baron Monteagle [q. v.]. Lord Melbourne's ministry fell before the end of the year, but on Lord Melbourne's return to power in the following April, Grey went back to his place, which became important by the removal of Grant to the upper house as Lord Glenelg. He had important work to do in carrying out the provisions for the emancipation of slaves in the West Indies, and his firmness and obvious integrity of purpose strongly impressed the house. The conduct of the government towards Canada was not wise, and Grey in 1836-8 had hard work to do in justifying it against criticism. One of his best speeches was made in 1838 in defence of Lord Glenelg against a vote of censure proposed by Sir W. Molesworth.
In the beginning of 1839 Charles Grant, lord Glenelg [q. v.], resigned, and Grey was advanced to the post of judge-advocate-general, which he retained till June 1841, when he became for a few months chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster. In 1845, by the death of his uncle. Sir Henry Grey, he became possessor of a family estate at Falloden in Northumberland, which continued to be his home for the remainder of his life. In the House of Commons he increased his reputation for sound judgment and skill in dealing with detailed business; but he never sought the honour of a slashing speaker, nor did he take much part in purely party debates. When Lord John Russell came into power in 1846 he chose Grey as home secretary, a post which he continued to hold with slight interruption for nearly twenty years, and which he made his own as few ministers have ever done. Careful in action and moderate in speech, he never invited opposition. He never attempted to be smart, nor spoke with bitterness. Of tall and commanding figure, endued with genuine kindliness and genial manners, he was known to be a man of high character whose word could be implicitly trusted. He did not aspire to be a great orator, but spoke with fluency and almost excessive rapidity, aiming only at clearness of statement and such emphasis as came from the expression of spontaneous feeling. He was in all ways a striking contrast to his predecessor Sir James Graham, whose measures to relieve the Irish famine he had immediately to carry out. In the same session he carried the Convict Discipline Bill, which substituted for transportation abroad the employment of convicts on public works at home.
On the dissolution of 1847 Grey abandoned his seat at Devonport to contest North Northumberland, in which the influence of the Percies had hitherto been supreme. Grey's personal popularity enabled him to win an election victory, which was felt to be important. In the course of 1848 Grey's good sense and coolness were severely taxed in dealing with the chartists, who threatened to march in force to Westminster bearing a monster petition. It was a year of revolution, and there was much excitement in England. The chartists were kept in order, and London remained quiet on 10 April, the day of their threatened meetings but this result was owing to the excellent precautions taken by Grey, who, without producing any irritation, outmanœuvred the chartist leaders. On the same evening Grey moved the second reading of a bill for preventing crimes in Ireland, which was opposed by Smith O'Brien, who was disappointed at the small effect of the chartist demonstration. Grey's reply was a scathing denunciation of O'Brien, and led to an ovation in the excited condition of the house. For some time after this Grey was the most popular man in England. His duties for the next two years were mainly concerned with the repression of Irish discontent.
In the dissolution of 1852 Grey lost his seat in North Northumberland, on which thirteen thousand working men presented him with a testimonial. He preferred to remain for a time out of parliament, but was elected for Morpeth in the beginning of 1853. At first he declined to take any part in the coalition ministry, but in June 1854 he thought it his duty to accept the colonial office, because at a time when war was imminent personal predilections had to give way to public considerations. Grey's presence was much desired in the cabinet. His moderation, good sense, and gentleness made him a useful link in holding together a ministry which was by no means at one. When the coalition government fell, Lord Palmerston transferred Grey to his old post at the home office (1855), where again he was mostly employed in keeping internal order and reorganising the police. In 1858 Lord Palmerston's government was defeated, and Grey was out of office; but on Lord Palmerston's return to power in 1859 he was chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, and in 1861 returned to the home office, wherein 1866 he had the responsibility of dealing with the cattle plague. In the same year his tenure of office came to an end. Earl Russell resigned, and when the liberal party returned to power under Mr. Gladstone, Grey did not take office. He contented himself with helping on parliamentary business by his knowledge on general points. With the dissolution in 1874 his parliamentary career ended. The borough of Morpeth had been enlarged by taking in a district inhabited by miners, and the miners being in a majority decided to elect a member from their own number. Grey readily retired in favour of Mr. Thomas Burt, and spent the remainder of his life with perfect happiness as a benevolent and philanthropic country gentleman. He died in his eighty-fourth year on 9 Sept. 1882. His only child, George Henry, died in 1874, and Grey was therefore succeeded by his eldest grandson, Edward.
Few statesmen in modern times have had more friends and fewer enemies than Grey. His moral excellence and social charm were obvious to all who met him. In politics he was content to remain an administrator without aspiring to be a statesman. Entering parliament just after the passing of the Reform Bill, he took the work of the whig party to be the adjustment of the rest of the institutions and organisation of the country to the level of the ideas which the Reform Bill expressed. Beyond this he did not attempt to go. He was singularly free from personal ambition, and gave himself entirely to the work of carrying on the business of his department. His moral qualities made him a valuable member of a cabinet where he was skilful in composing differences. He is a rare instance of a man who retired from politics without bitterness, and was to the end of his life a valued counsellor to statesmen of different opinions from himself.
[Obituary notice in the Times. 11 Sept. 1882; Creighton's Memoir of Sir George Grey(privately printed); personal knowledge.]