Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Couper, George Ebenezer Wilson

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COUPER, Sir GEORGE EBENEZER WILSON, second baronet (1824–1908), Anglo-Indian administrator, born at Halifax, Nova Scotia, on 29 April 1824, was eldest of six children of Sir George Couper, first baronet (1788-1861), then military secretary to Sir James Kempt [q. v.], the governor there, by his wife Elizabeth, daughter of Sir John Wilson [q. v.], judge of common pleas. The father was subsequently comptroller of the household and equerry to the duchess of Kent. The second son, Major-general George Kempt Couper (1827-1901), served in the Indian staff corps, and the fifth son, Henry Edward, captain 70th regiment (1835-1876), saw service in the mutiny.

After education at Sherborne and at Coombe, Surrey, Couper entered, in 1839, the Royal Military College, Sandhurst. Passing out with distinction in 1842, he was gazetted to the 15th regiment as ensign. But receiving nomination to a 'writership' in India, he went to the East India College, Haileybury, early in 1844, and joined the Bengal civil service at the close of 1846. After being stationed at Dinajpur, Eastern Bengal, he was included in the first commission sent to the Punjab upon its annexation in 1849. When only twenty-five he was assistant commissioner at Jehlam, with the powers of a collector.

Dalhousie, the 'oldest and dearest friend' of Couper's father, took a keen interest in him, and the governor-general's 'Private Letters' to the elder Couper (1910) make frequent reference to the young man's progress. In 1853 Couper went to headquarters as under-secretary to the government of India, first in the home and finance, and then in the foreign departments. On the annexation of Oudh in February 1856 he was appointed secretary at Lucknow to the chief commissioner, Sir James Outram [q. v.], whose place was taken in March 1857 by Sir Henry Lawrence [q. v.]. Through the mutiny he was with Lawrence in all encounters with the rebels up to and including the battle of Chinhut on 30 June, when his horse was wounded. He was A.D.C. as well as chief secretary to Lawrence until his death at the residency on 4 July, then to Sir John Inglis [q. v.], and finally, after the relief, to Outram. During the siege of Lucknow Couper showed tireless energy, courage, and sagacity, which were liberally acknowledged in the despatches of his chiefs (cf. Kaye's History; Hutchinson's Narrative of Events in Oudh; Dr. George Smith's Physician and Friend). He was the author, save for the mentions of himself, of Inglis's celebrated despatch of 26 Sept. 1857, which he reprinted with selections from his own speeches on the mutiny, for private circulation, with characteristic omission of Inglis's references to himself (1896). He also wrote the letterpress to Captain Mecham's 'Illustrations of the Siege of Lucknow' (1858). He received the medal with two clasps, and was made C.B. (civil division) in May 1860.

The governor-general, Canning, declined Outram's emphatic recommendation of Couper as his successor in the chief commissionership of Oudh (6 Jan. 1858) on the ground that Couper had been only twelve years in the service. After furlough home he went to Allahabad, in 1859, as chief secretary of the north-west provinces government. Sir Evelyn Wood, then a young officer, who visited Allahabad at the time, regarded him as the cleverest man in India (From Midshipman to Field-Marshal). He succeeded to the baronetcy in February 1861, and went back to Oudh as judicial commissioner in 1863. From April 1871 he acted as chief commissioner of the province, and was confirmed in the appointment in December 1873. In that office he carefully revised the land assessments, which had been hurriedly settled, and created a separate establishment to administer encumbered taluqdari estates.

On the retirement of Sir John Strachey [q. v. Suppl. II] in July 1876, Couper was made acting lieutenant-governor of the north-western provinces, while retaining his control of Oudh. The long-pending reform of partial amalgamation of Oudh with the larger province under a single head was thereby accomplished. On 17 Jan. 1877 Couper became the first 'lieutenant-governor of the north-western province and chief commissioner of Oudh.' The change was unwelcome to the taluqdars; but Couper's tact rendered the new union thoroughly successful.

Couper handled a widespread famine in 1877-8 with strict business-like efficiency. By careful conservation of provincial resources, which was occasionally censured as parsimony, he was able to initiate a policy of canal and light railway construction, and to leave accumulated balances of about a million sterling for its development by his successor, Sir Alfred Comyn Lyall [q. v. Suppl. II]. Owing to the decision of the government of India not to allow the railways to be 'provincial' undertakings, the united provinces of Agra and Oudh, as they have been named since 1901, did not reap full financial benefit from Couper's economy. But his programme of construction was closely followed. Material progress was the keynote of his policy; he developed the agricultural department, so that it became a model for other provinces; and he heartily encouraged Indian industrial enterprises, such as the 'Couper' paper mills at Lucknow. He was created K.C.S.I and a councillor of the empire in January 1877, and C.I.E. a year later. On his retirement in April 1882 he declined, with characteristic modesty, the proposal of the Husainabad Endowment Trustees, Lucknow, to erect a statue in his memory, and as an alternative they built a clock tower.

After residing at Cheltenham for a few years Sir George settled at Camberley, where he died on 5 March 1908, being buried in St. Michael's churchyard there. Couper married on 29 April 1852 Caroline Penelope, granddaughter of Sir Henry Every, ninth baronet, of Eggington Hall, Burton-on-Trent; she died on 28 Nov. 1910, and was buried beside her husband. By her Couper had a family of five sons and four daughters; one of the latter, who died young, was born in the Lucknow residency during the siege. The eldest son, Sir Ramsay George Henry, succeeded as third baronet.

[Kaye, Hist. of Sepoy War and other mutiny literature; minute of governor-general on services of civil officers during mutiny, 2 July 1859; Pioneer (Allahabad), 17 April 1882, 13 March 1908; The Times, 7 March 1908; Burke's Peerage; India Office List; private papers kindly lent by Sir George Couper's eldest daughter, Lady Benson, who is preparing a brief biography of her father.]

F. H. B.