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Henry George Grey (1802–1894)

by John M. Ward

This article was published:

Henry George Grey (1802-1894), politician, was born on 28 December 1802 at Howick House, Northumberland, England, the eldest son of Charles, second Earl Grey ('Lord Grey of the Reform Bill'), and his wife Mary Elizabeth, daughter of William Brabazon Ponsonby. He was known as Viscount Howick from 1807 until he succeeded to the earldom in July 1845.

Because his father remembered his own early schooldays with horror, Grey was educated privately at home, with his fifteen brothers and sisters. Although his home was happy, he acquired the aloofness and anxious outlook of a too-conscientious elder brother. He entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1821 (M.A., 1823). An active member of the Union Society, he usually supported the liberal side in debates.

His political career was assured by birth and the proud affection of his father, who in 1826 spent £14,000 in a vain attempt to win him election to the Commons as member for Northumberland. He was returned soon after for the rotten borough of Winchelsea and settled down to a serious study of public questions. His father made him under-secretary for the colonies in 1830-33 in his own administration, but was distressed by his vehement desire to emancipate the slaves, his conversion to free trade and his impatience with the Colonial Office. Howick's political career continued to puzzle, delight and dismay his father when he was under-secretary in the Home Office in 1834, secretary at war in 1835-39 and later an unpredictable and highly independent private member. The old earl suspected Tory influence when on 9 August 1832 Howick married Maria, third daughter of Sir Josiah Copley, of Sprotbrough. But Howick never needed any encouragement to reach conclusions that were inconvenient to his friends and associates. His acidulous, assertive individualism made him difficult to patronize and earned him the perilous reputation of a young man in a hurry, preoccupied with his own ideas and impatient of opposition.

In 1845 Howick went to the Lords, where he became the effective leader of the Whigs. His outstanding abilities as an administrator had been proved in three departments of state. In the Commons he had been a forceful speaker, whose arguments gained weight from family prestige and powerful associations, yet he was at ease only with his closest friends and understood nothing so well about other people as the defects of their arguments. Howick did have, however, the saving graces of personal humility and exceptional honesty, qualities that were not obvious to colonists, who knew him only through reports of his speeches and pompous dispatches.

Howick was misunderstood in his first incursion into Australian affairs, the Ripon land regulations of 1831, which brought an end to free grants and provided for sales by auction at a minimum price of 5s. an acre. In persuading his chief, Viscount Goderich, to adopt this new policy Howick based his views on long-considered planning in the Colonial Office, and much preparation for the change in New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land. He was not acting on any belief in the principles of Edward Gibbon Wakefield and he opposed the early plans for a settlement in South Australia. When Wakefield became prominent in the 1830s it was natural for any advocate of colonial reform to discuss his own ideas in relation to Wakefield's. At a dinner in Wakefield's honour on 1 May 1841 Howick praised him incautiously and was reported in the Morning Chronicle, which favoured the colonial reformers. Howick's generosity owed something to recent service on the parliamentary select committee on South Australia. He had been pleased with the evidence of Colonel Robert Torrens, which confirmed his own views that had been attacked 'by the more slavish followers of Wakefield's doctrines'. He had been amused by the evidence of Wakefield, who with agile flexibility compromised his former hostility to the auction 'heresy' in the Ripon regulations, and agreed that some of the proceeds of land sales might be used for purposes other than emigration.

As under-secretary, Howick was spokesman for the Colonial Office in the Commons when, on 28 June 1832, Henry Lytton Bulwer, later agent of the Australian Patriotic Association, presented a Sydney petition for trial by jury and a house of assembly in New South Wales. Howick told the Commons that the extension of trial by jury to all criminal cases had already been authorized. But neither he nor Goderich would yield to the demand for a representative assembly, though they were prepared to liberalize the institutions of the colony. Howick left the Colonial Office in March 1833 but returned in 1835; when Governor Sir Richard Bourke drafted a Constitution bill, to replace the New South Wales Constitution of 1828 that was about to expire, Howick did his best to bully Lord Glenelg into making a firm decision about it. To his disgust, Glenelg managed to persuade the cabinet to re-enact the old Constitution for another year, a procedure that was repeated until 1842. Howick became more reconciled to this evasiveness, as he thought it, when he served on Sir William Molesworth's select committee on transportation in 1837-38, and heard much evidence on social and political conditions in New South Wales. The difficulties of the problem curbed his impatience. Like others on the committee he was persuaded that transportation had produced intolerable evils, but he was opposed to its abrupt ending: the colonies needed convict labour and Britain had to dispose of her convicts. The committee thought that convicts with long sentences might be sent to special settlements in isolated places. Although transportation to New South Wales ceased in 1839 Howick's policy towards transportation remained unchanged, and his tactless pertinacity in advancing it later poisoned his relationships with the Australian colonies.

In 1846 Grey was given the Colonial Office in Lord John Russell's administration. He showed himself a fervid, doctrinaire free trader, an ardent believer in high imperial responsibility towards the colonies, and a forceful, impatient administrator. His triumphs were won mainly in British North America. The Australian colonies never raised him to comparable levels of interest and statesmanship. Their convict origins, their very recent establishment and their unfortunate lack of outstanding governors combined to make him uninstructed and high-handed in his Australian policies. The lack of sympathy between Grey and Sir Charles FitzRoy was particularly significant.

On taking office Grey had acted quickly on three urgent Australian problems: the land claims of the squatters who had driven Governor Sir George Gipps to despair, demands for constitutional reform, and the difficulties of convict transportation. His solution of the squatting problem was as good as the circumstances permitted, although bitterly criticized at the time and much doubted since. By the Waste Lands Occupation Act of 1846 he had parliament authorize leases of crown lands up to fourteen years. The Order in Council of 9 March 1847, completed after consultations with Gipps on his return to London, gave the squatters most of what they had sought in the way of long leases, renewals, and pre-emption. It satisfied the squatters. Robert Lowe tried, without much success, to work up a protest against Grey for having virtually handed over the lands to them. Because some of the most powerful members of the Legislative Council were squatters, Grey's reforms greatly diminished political tensions in the colony. This had not, however, been his intention, for Grey never yielded to clamour. He thought that the pastoral industry should have its reasonable demands granted and believed that he had sufficiently guarded the agriculturists and small settlers. In 1848 Grey protected another group of Australians, when he ordered that the new leases were not to deprive Aboriginals of their rights to hunt except over land actually fenced or cultivated. He wished also for more reserves, to be held by trustees and used for the Aboriginals' benefit. To Grey the crown lands of the empire were a trust on behalf of posterity as well as the present occupants. He was unwilling that Colonial legislatures should control lands that the empire as a whole might need in later generations. Nevertheless the Order in Council of 1847 failed, mainly because of the gold discoveries, which delayed the necessary surveys, undermined the bases of classification into districts and enhanced the values of pre-emption. Grey's policy was never thoroughly tried under the conditions for which it was designed and he left office without having had a chance to adapt it to the altered circumstances.

Grey's constitutional policies in Australia were less well founded than his land policy and had little success. He believed that all colonies capable of doing so should govern themselves except where some imperial interest was involved. He was the true begetter of responsible government in British North America, but he so misjudged political conditions in Australia that the colonists there regarded him as a major obstacle to their constitutional advancement. The most urgent constitutional problem in Australia in 1846 was the demand of the Port Phillip District for separation from New South Wales. The governor and Executive Council of New South Wales favoured it and Grey was doing nothing remarkable when he sanctioned it. Unfortunately he decided to embark on a single comprehensive measure that would include separation and answer the demands of colonists in Tasmania and South Australia for representative government. On 31 July 1847 he wrote to Governor FitzRoy inviting comment on elaborate constitutional proposals. These proposals, drafted by James Stephen as a constitution for New Zealand, were distilled from over thirty years of imperial experience and designed to provide effective government for large colonies with sparse populations. There was to be a pyramid of institutions, rising from municipal bodies at the bottom to bicameral colonial legislatures and a federal assembly at the top. Grey valued the proposed federation as a guarantee of free trade throughout the Australian colonies. It did not occur to him that the complicated provisions would be interpreted as a sinister assault on colonial self-government.

These proposals had a mixed reception in Australia. In New South Wales Grey was reviled for having trampled on the colonists' demands for reform while preferring crotchets of his own. Few noticed that he was merely asking for advice. His failure to increase the powers of the colonial legislature and his plan to extend the unpopular district councils set up in New South Wales in 1843 were reviled as evidence of a reactionary spirit. His earlier concession that the local legislature might appropriate the casual revenues of the Crown was forgotten, and the federation scheme was little prized. The Port Phillip District was too enamoured of separation to protest much about the other proposals. The references to increased self-government in South Australia and Tasmania were welcomed, but colonists disliked a federation scheme that might put them in bondage to New South Wales. In every colony attitudes towards the constitutional proposals were influenced by the attempts that Grey was making simultaneously to have transportation to New South Wales revived in a modified form. Everywhere his proposals suffered because they were not related to the local problems of each colony. Before he knew of their unfavourable reception in Australia, Grey decided to withdraw the proposals, mainly because the New Zealand Constitution had proved unworkable and had been suspended. In July 1848 he assured FitzRoy hat he would not force district councils or bicameral legislatures on unwilling colonists.

Grey still meditated a master stroke of constitution-making in Australia. On the advice of James Stephen, confirmed by the parliamentary under-secretary, Benjamin Hawes (1797-1862), he decided to refer the problem to the Privy Council Committee for Trade and Plantations. He genuinely believed both that the Colonial Office lacked the means of taking considered thought on such questions, and that he already knew enough of the opinions of the colonists. Grey presided over the committee and Stephen drafted the report, which preserved the essentials of the plan of 1847, except that bicameralism and district councils were made permissive, not mandatory. Federation remained a part of the plan, although Hawes thought it premature. Without waiting for comment from Australia, Grey embodied the report in a bill that Hawes introduced into parliament. For over a year the Russell government tried to have parliament enact this measure; Grey and Russell had to modify their plans repeatedly to satisfy the Colonial Reform Society, which marshalled a formidable opposition, armed with criticisms from Australia. The most important casualty in parliament was the federation plan, which Grey withdrew when convinced of its weakness.

The Australian Colonies Government Act of 1850 authorized the erection of the Port Phillip District into the colony of Victoria and gave to it, South Australia and Tasmania the sort of Constitution that New South Wales had had since 1843. It expanded the franchise qualifications. It allowed the colonies to manage their own customs tariffs, provided they were uniform. Moreover, any of these colonies might change its parliamentary constitution, subject to the approval of the Queen in Council. New South Wales gained so little by the new Act that a vigorous Declaration and Remonstrance was passed by the old Legislative Council and adopted by the new council elected under the amended franchise. Although FitzRoy supported the colonists in asking for greater self-government, Grey refused to believe them capable of it and adamantly refused any concessions. It was left to his successor, Sir John Pakington, to promise control of land and land revenue when the colony had drawn up a new constitution.

Grey was grievously disappointed by the failure of his federation plan, and used the powers of the Crown to save as much of it as he could. In 1851 when FitzRoy was appointed governor-general of all Her Majesty's Australian possessions, Grey hoped that he would assist free trade and co-ordinate the policies of the colonial governments on matters of common concern, such as railway gauges. FitzRoy did neither.

Grey's federation proposals showed vision of a kind, but both in presentation and in detail they had the great common defect of his constitutional policies in Australia: too much theoretical sagacity and too little understanding of the colonial scene. His policies on convict transportation were even more badly advised and ill informed. When New South Wales was closed to convict transportation in 1840, too many convicts had to go to Tasmania, and in 1846 transportation to Tasmania was suspended for two years. Grey confirmed this decision and with characteristic energy strove to improve the supervision of convicts in the colony and to assist its finances. In an unfortunate dispatch on 5 February 1847 Grey informed Sir William Denison that transportation to Tasmania would not be renewed when the two years suspension ended. Grey had meant only that transportation on the previous system would not be renewed if it could be avoided. His 'unguarded expression', as he later called it, should not have deceived anyone who read the whole dispatch carefully, but it certainly misled the colonists who took it as a promise that transportation would cease.

Grey aimed ultimately at abolition of the convict system. Meanwhile, so long as England had more convicts than gaols to house them and the colonies needed labour, he proposed an improved system of transportation. Prisoners were to serve the strictly penal parts of their sentences under close supervision in England, then go to public works at Gibraltar or Bermuda and only then go to the colonies as 'exiles'. When it was objected that exiles might be unfit for freedom, the plan was modified to send out prisoners with tickets-of-leave instead, at the expiration of half their sentences. Exiles could have gone to any colony that was willing to have them; tickets-of-leave men, being prisoners under sentence, could go only to penal colonies. Because Tasmania, the principal penal colony, was already crowded with convicts, Grey hoped that other colonies might take ticket-of-leave men.

Gladstone, faced with the same problems, had already asked whether New South Wales would accept convicts from Tasmania who had served most of their terms, and also convicts direct from England. A committee of the Legislative Council recommended that transportation to New South Wales be resumed for the sake of labour, subject to various safeguards. The report was bitterly contested in the colony, but Grey acted on it, for transportation was still the official policy; it was supported by influential colonists and both FitzRoy and Denison favoured it. He proposed to send out convicts with tickets-of-leave or conditional pardons, allowing their wives and families to join them in approved cases, and to send out equal numbers of free emigrants at Britain's expense. Meanwhile the Legislative Council had rejected the committee's report, on the ground that transportation would injure the colony morally, socially and politically. This noble doctrine was, however, soon disavowed when Grey's offer arrived. Pleading an increased shortage of labour, the council in April 1848 accepted his proposals with minor stipulations.

Grey had proposed more than he could readily perform. The gaols were overflowing and he wanted to send convicts at once, but an immediate parliamentary vote for free emigration was unlikely. Although he knew that convicts 'could not be sent without incurring a charge of breach of faith', he dispatched a moderate number. The Order in Council abolishing transportation to New South Wales was revoked and Grey hoped that the revival of free emigration then occurring would disarm colonial opposition. His calculations were wrong. In 1849 Sydney and Melbourne both reacted furiously to the arrival of convicts, although employers were glad to have them. A newly elected Legislative Council rejected his proposals. Faced with the 'senseless caprices' of the New South Wales legislature, Grey again decided wrongly. Parliament had meanwhile voted money for free emigration, so that transportation on the system that the council had once approved was now possible. He hopefully refused to decree its end. Expecting that Moreton Bay might be kept open to convicts according to the wishes of its squatters, he invited the Legislative Council to think again. To his dismay the council angrily resolved that, 'no more convicts ought, under any conditions, to be sent to any part of this colony'.

Grey's object of relieving the pressure of convicts on Tasmania had not prospered; free labour was being driven out of the colony by the massing of felons. Grey and Denison experimented with reforms of the convict system and their efforts infuriated those Tasmanians who wanted transportation abolished, not improved. Simultaneous efforts to promote free immigration failed. In 1849 an Anti-Transportation League, whose members were pledged not to employ convict labour, was formed in Tasmania. Denison reported that it was noisy, hypocritical and unimportant, but it soon spread to the mainland, especially after Grey made Western Australia a penal settlement at its own request and sent convicts there in 1850. However, some responsibility for his maladroit handling of the convict problem should be placed on FitzRoy and Denison, to whom he was entitled to look for local knowledge. FitzRoy, faced with angry conflict in New South Wales, did nothing to lead or clarify colonial opinion, and did not warn Grey of the chasm opening at his feet. Denison was so sure that convicts were economically valuable to Tasmania that he was indifferent to the feeling against them.

Grey tried to meet the wishes of the colonists over free immigration, but failed to satisfy them. All the colonies complained of labour shortages. New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia demanded additional imperial expenditure to assist immigration, or wished to borrow against the security of land revenue. Grey permitted some borrowing most reluctantly. He knew that it was hopeless to ask parliament to support systematic colonization, but did his best to help attempts to shift part of the costs of immigration from the colonies to Britain. He also discouraged the use of Kanaka and Chinese labour and refused to aid the private immigration ventures of John Dunmore Lang. Grey recognized that other countries offered superior attractions and he foresaw correctly that not even the gold rushes would diminish Australia's need for assisted immigration.

Grey's posture of superior wisdom was sometimes well founded, but it was strongly resented in the Australian colonies. It rested partly on his own habits of mind, still more on his failure to understand the rapid changes in Australian society while he was at the Colonial Office. To him, Australia was totally unfitted for responsible government, because of convict origins, selfish cliques and irritable factions. When he decided in 1846 to withdraw part of the imperial garrison from New South Wales, he acted, not only on a general policy that self-governing colonies should pay for their own militia, but also in the belief that political life in Australia would be improved by the burden of new responsibilities.

After he left office in February 1852, he did not enter a government again. His remaining years were spent in criticizing the efforts of others. Australia received its share of disapproving comment. In 1864 he asserted that responsible government was working badly and concluded that it had been granted too soon. In 1880 he deplored the whole political history of Victoria and asserted that it revealed the unwisdom of a too rapid transition to responsible government. In 1892 he regretted the growth of protection in the colonies. When he died at Howick on 9 October 1894 he had nearly lived to see accomplished that federation of Australia for which he had once laboured. It would have delighted him by guaranteeing free trade among the States. It would also have bewildered him because of the political maturity of the processes by which it was achieved.

A portrait of the third Earl Grey is in the collection at Howick, the family seat.

Select Bibliography

  • H. G. Grey, The Colonial Policy of Lord John Russell's Administration, vols 1-2 (Lond, 1853)
  • W. P. Morrell, British Colonial Policy in the Age of Peel and Russell (Oxford, 1930)
  • A. C. V. Melbourne, Early Constitutional Development in Australia (Oxford, 1934)
  • G. R. Mellor, British Imperial Trusteeship 1783-1800 (Lond, 1951)
  • J. M. Ward, Earl Grey and the Australian Colonies, 1846-1857 (Melb, 1951)
  • J. M. Ward, ‘The Colonial Policy of Lord John Russell's Administration’, Historical Studies, Australia and New Zealand, vol 9, no 35, Nov 1960, pp 244-62
  • Grey papers (University of Durham and National Archives of the United Kingdom)
  • Russell papers (National Archives of the United Kingdom).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John M. Ward, 'Grey, Henry George (1802–1894)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 29 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (Melbourne University Press), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • third Earl Grey
  • Grey, third Earl
  • Howick, Viscount

28 December, 1802
Howick, Northumberland, England


9 October, 1894 (aged 91)
Howick, Northumberland, England

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