Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement/Gregory, William Henry
GREGORY, Sir WILLIAM HENRY (1817–1892), governor of Ceylon, was the only son of Robert Gregory of Coole Park, co. Galway, by Elizabeth O'Hara of Raheen in the same county. He was born on 12 July 1817 at the under-secretary's lodge, Phoenix Park, Dublin, the residence of his grandfather, William Gregory [q. v. Suppl.] As a very small boy he made the acquaintance of Richard Colley, Marquis Wellesley [q. v.], during his Irish viceroyalty, and enjoyed the affectionate friendship of that statesman, many of whose letters are printed in Gregory's autobiography. Gregory was educated first at Mr. Ward's school at Iver, Buckinghamshire, and afterwards at Harrow, where he entered in 1831 under Charles Thomas Longley [q. v.], who considered him the cleverest boy he ever had under him. He gained the Peel scholarship, and was head of the school before leaving for Oxford. At Christ Church, whence he matriculated on 6 June 1835, he was less fortunate, running second for the Craven scholarship in two successive years. Owing partly to ill-health, he left Oxford without a degree. But he had laid at school the foundation of a brilliant scholarship, and he was conspicuous among his contemporaries in parliament for his intimate knowledge of the classics.
Leaving Oxford in 1840 Gregory travelled abroad with his parents for some time. He had up to this time taken no serious interest in politics; but in the spring of 1842 he was induced to stand as the conservative candidate for Dublin, and was returned by a large majority, defeating Viscount Morpeth (afterwards the popular viceroy and Earl of Carlisle). The election cost 9,000l., of which the chief item was a 'gratification for 1,500 freemen at 3l. a head.' Though fortunate in being returned at five-and-twenty for so important a constituency, Gregory was obliged to give pledges to the extreme conservative and Orange party, which were inconsistent with his real convictions, and by which he subsequently felt himself considerably hampered. Notwithstanding that his attention to politics was at first rather spasmodic, Gregory was soon looked on as among the promising young men of his day in the House of Commons. He was popular with all parties and attracted the attention and regard of men so different as Peel, Disraeli, and O'Connell. He supported Peel on the Maynooth grant and in his corn-law policy; and shortly before Peel's loss of office in 1846 was offered by the premier the Irish lordship of the treasury, with the conduct of Irish business in the House of Commons, in the temporary absence of Henry Pelham Fiennes Clinton, Lord Lincoln (afterwards Duke of Newcastle [q. v.]), then chief secretary, from parliament. Gregory was persuaded by his friends, who feared the charge of unprincipled office-seeking, to refuse this offer, a decision he always deeply regretted, and which had an unfortunate influence on his subsequent career. After Peel's overthrow Gregory remained in nominal opposition to the ministry of Lord John Russell, but his sympathies were becoming more and more liberal. He took an active part in February 1847 in the discussion of the Poor Relief Act, designed by the Russell ministry to mitigate the misery caused in Ireland by the potato famine, and was the author of the 'Gregory clause,' which was intended to prevent the abuse of the act by disentitling the possessor of more than a quarter of an acre of land to eleemosynary assistance. He also procured the insertion of provisions for assisting emigration. At the general election of August 1847 Gregory found that his liberal tendencies had alienated many of his old supporters, and he failed to secure re-election. He was then nominated for his native county of Galway, but, being insufficiently supported, withdrew his candidature, and for ten years made no further attempt to enter parliament. In 1849 he was appointed high sheriff of Galway.
For the next six years Gregory devoted himself almost exclusively to the turf, for which he had early evinced a passion, and where he had won in his twenty-second Bjar as much as 5,000l. on Coronation's erby. By 1853 he was obliged to sell two-thirds of the fine estate of 7,000l. a year, to which he had succeeded on the death of his father in 1847. He visited Egypt in the winter of 1855-6 and Tunis two years later. He printed privately in 1859 a narrative of both these journeys, in two volumes. After this financial breakdown Gregory finally quitted the turf; but he retained his interest in racing matters to the close of his life, Not long before his death he contributed to Mr. Lawley's 'Racing Life of Lord George Bentinck' (1892) a number of interesting reminiscences of his career on the turf; and the editor, who appended to his account of Bentinck two valuable chapters on Gregory's racing career, laments that Gregory, 'who knew the turf and all its intricacies as well as Sir Walter Scott's "William of Deloraine" knew the passes and fords of the Scottish border,' and 'possessed the literary ability and keen insight into character requisite for the task,' could not be prevailed upon to write a history of the turf.
At the general election of 1857, his affairs being by this time put in order, Gregory was returned as a liberal-conservative and supporter of Lord Palmerston for co. Galway. He was re-elected for the same constituency at two successive general elections, and continued to represent it until 1871. During this second period of his active political life Gregory acquired a distinguished position in the House of Commons. Down to 1865 he ranked as a liberal-conservative, but after the death of Lord Palmerston, to whose views his own approximated more closely than to those of any other statesman, he formally joined the liberal party ; and on Earl Russell's accession to the premiership in 1866 was offered office as a lord of the admiralty in the liberal government. This he declined for private reasons. He was, however, opposed to the wide extension of the franchise, and joined the celebrated Cave of Adullam [see Horsman, Edward ; Lowe, Robert] in opposition to Russell's reform bill of 1866. He subsequently supported Gladstone in his Irish church sisestablishment measure and in his Land Act of 1870. Gregory held pronounced views on the subject of Irish agrarian legislation, and in 1866 introduced a measure which anticipated in some of its clauses the provisions of the Laud Acts of 1870 and 1881. But it was in reference to matters connected with the relations between the state and art that Gregory was best known in parliament. In 1860 he initiated a House of Commons inquiry, over which he presided as chairman, into the accommodation at the British Museum, and subsequently had much to do with the arrangement and development of the South Kensington collections. He was an ardent supporter of the opening of public museums on Sundays, took a keen interest in popularising the study of the arts, and for several years was regarded as the principal authority in the House of Commons on matters of this sort. In 1867 he was appointed a trustee of the National Gallery, on the recommendation of Disraeli, whose regard, in spite of political disagreement, Gregory always retained. Thenceforward he took the keenest interest in the development and enlargement of the national collection, a task for which his fine and cultivated taste well qualified him. Shortly before his death he presented the gems of his private collection of pictures to the National Gallery. In 1871 Gregory was appointed, on the recommendation of Lord Granville, governor of Ceylon, having been sworn a member of the Irish privy council early in the same year, and in January 1872 sailed for that dependency, in which he remained for over five years. In this position Gregory exhibited the highest administrative qualities, and his tenure of the governorship was one of uninterrupted success. He 'spent more money on reproductive works than any other governor, doing much to stimulate the cultivation of coffee and tea, and to improve the harbours of the island.' He was also active in restoring the architectural remains of the ancient Kandyan kings. In 1876 he received the prince of Wales in Colombo on the occasion of his visit to India, and was made K.C.M.G. A statue of Gregory stands before the museum at Colombo. In 1877 he resigned his office and returned to Ireland. Thenceforward Gregory took no active part in public affairs, though his interest in them remained keen. As an Irish landlord he approved Gladstone's Land Act of 1881. But he was stoutly opposed to the home-rule movement; and in 1881 he printed privately a 'Confidential Letter,' in which he combated the separatist aims of Parnell and his followers. He had, however, a deep sympathy with oppressed nationalities, and with most aspirations for local independence. He was in favour of the recognition of the independence of the southern states during the American civil war; and in 1882 he advocated the cause of Arabi Pasha in letters to the 'Times.' Subsequently to his retirement from the Ceylon government he paid three visits to that island. In 1889 he contributed to the 'Nineteenth Century' an article on Daniel O'Connell, whom he had known well in early life. After 1890 Gregory's health gradually failed, and he died at St. George's Place, London, on 6 March 1892, from the effects of a chill contracted when attending a meeting of the trustees of the National Gallery.
Gregory was twice married: first, in January 1872, to Elizabeth, daughter of Sir William Clay and widow of James Temple Bowdoin, a lady possessed of considerable private fortune, who died in 1873; secondly, on 2 March 1880, to Augusta, youngest daughter of Dudley Persse of Roxborough, co. Galway, who survived him with one son, William Robert Gregory.
Gregory was a man of great natural abilities, real political talent, and marked personal charm, who, but for a certain inherent instability, might easily have attained to the most eminent political positions. He was an excellent landlord, and enjoyed through the worst phases of Irish agrarian agitation the regard of his tenantry and the goodwill of all classes of his countrymen.
The main authority for Gregory's career is his autobiography, written in his retirement between the years 1884 and 1891, and published in 1894 by Lady Gregory. The portrait prefixed to that work conveys a somewhat erroneous impression of his figure, which was slight and delicate, though his head was massive.
[Sir William Gregory, K.C.M.G.: an Autobiogrnphy, 1894; Burke's Landed Gentry; Men of the Time for 1891; obituary notice in Times, 8 March 1892; F. B. Lawley's Racing Life of Lord George Bentinck; Ferguson's Ceylon in the Jubilee Year.]