Biography of John Lawrence

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Lord Lawrence
Lord Lawrence

Indian Administrator. The north of Ireland and its Scoto-Irish stock has given birth to some of the toughest human material that our British Isles have produced. Of this stock was John Wesley, who at the age of eighty-five attributed his good health to rising every day at four and preaching every day at five. Of this was Arthur Wellesley, who never knew defeat and ‘never lost a British gun’. Of this was Alexander Lawrence, sole survivor among the officers of the storming party at Seringapatam, who lived to rear seven stout sons, five of whom went out to service in India, two at least to win imperishable fame. His wife, a Miss Knox, came also from across the sea; and, if the evidence fails to prove Mr. Bosworth Smith’s statement that she was akin to the great Reformer, she herself was a woman of strong character and great administrative talent. When we remember John Lawrence’s parentage, we need not be surprised at the character which he bore, nor at the evidence of it to be seen in the grand rugged features portrayed by Watts in the picture in the National Portrait Gallery.

Of these parents John Laird Mair Lawrence was the fourth surviving son, one boy, the eldest, having died in infancy. He owed the accident of his birth in an English town to his father’s regiment being quartered at the time in Yorkshire, his first schooling at Bristol to his father’s residence at Clifton; but when he was twelve years old, he followed his elder brothers to Londonderry, where his maternal uncle, the Rev. James Knox, was Headmaster of the Free Grammar School, situated within the walls of that famous Protestant fortress. It was a rough school, of which the Lawrence brothers cherished few kindly recollections. It is difficult to ascertain what they learnt there: perhaps the grim survivals of the past, town-walls, bastions, and guns, made the deepest impression upon them. John’s chief friend at school was Robert Montgomery, whom, many years later, he welcomed as a sympathetic fellow-worker in India; and the two boys continued their education together at Wraxall in Wiltshire, to which they were transferred in 1825. Here John spent two years, working at his books by fits and starts, and finding an outlet for his energy in climbing, kite-flying, and other unconventional amusements, and then his turn came to profit by the goodwill of a family friend, who was an influential man and a director of the East India Company. To this man, John Huddlestone by name, his brothers Alexander and George owed their commissions in the Indian cavalry, while Henry had elected for the artillery. John hoped for a similar favour, but was offered, in its place, a post in the Indian Civil Service. This was a cruel disappointment to him as he had set his heart on the army. In fact he was only reconciled to the prospect by the influence of his eldest sister Letitia, who held a unique place as the family counselor now and throughout her life.

When he sailed first for India at the age of eighteen, John Lawrence had done little to give promise of future distinction. He had strong attachments to his mother and sister; outside the family circle he was not eager to make new friends. In his work and in his escapades he showed an independent spirit, and seemed to care little what others thought of him; even at Haileybury, at that time a training-school for the service of the East India Company, he was most irregular in his studies, though he carried off several prizes; and he seems to have impressed his fellows rather as an uncouth person who preferred mooning about the college, or rambling alone through the country-side, to spending his days in the pursuits which they esteemed.

When the time came for John Lawrence to take up his work, his brother Henry, his senior by five years, was also going out to India to rejoin his company of artillery, and the brothers sailed together. John had to spend ten weary months in Calcutta learning languages, and was very unhappy there. Ill-health was one cause; another was his distaste for strangers’ society and his longing for home; it was only the definite prospect of work which rescued him from despondency. He applied for a post at Delhi; and, as soon as this was granted, he was all eagerness to leave Calcutta. But he had used the time well in one respect: he had acquired the power of speaking Persian with ease and fluency, and this stood him in good stead in his dealings with the princes and the peasants of the northern races, whose history he was to influence in the coming years.

Delhi has been to many Englishmen besides John Lawrence a city of absorbing interest. It had even then a long history behind it, and its history, as we in the twentieth century know, is by no means finished yet. It stands on the Jumna, the greatest tributary of the Ganges, at a point where the roads from the northwest reach the vast fertile basin of these rivers, full in the path of an invader. Many races had swept down on it from the mountain passes before the English soldiery appeared from the south-east; its mosques, its palaces, its gates, recall the memory of many princes and conquerors. At the time of Lawrence’s arrival it was still the home of the heir of Akbar and Aurangzeb, the last of the great Mughals. The dynasty had been left in 1804, after the wars of Lord Wellesley, shorn of its power, but not robbed of its dignity or riches. As a result it had degenerated into an abuse of the first order, since all the scoundrels of the district infested the palace and preyed upon its owner, who had no work to occupy him, no call of duty to rouse him from sloth and sensuality. The town was filled with a turbulent population of many different tribes, and the work of the European officials was exacting and difficult. But at the same time it gave unique opportunities for an able man to learn the complexity of the Indian problem; and the knowledge which John Lawrence acquired there proved of incalculable value to him when he was called to higher posts.

At Delhi he was working as an assistant to the Resident, one of a staff of four or five, with no independent authority. But in 1834 he was given temporary charge of the district of Panipat, fifty miles to the north, and it is here that we begin to get some measure of the man and his abilities. The place was the scene of more than one famous battle in the past; armies of Mughals and Persians and Marathis had swept across its plains. Its present inhabitants were Jats, a race widely extended through the eastern Punjab and the western part of the province of Agra. Originally invaders from the north, they espoused the religions of those around them, some Brahman, some Muhammadan, some Sikh, and settled down as thrifty industrious peasants; though inclined to peaceful pursuits, they still preserved some strength of character and were the kind of people among whom Lawrence might hope to enjoy his work. The duties of the magistrate are generally divided into judicial and financial. But, as an old Indian official more exhaustively stated it: ‘Everything which is done by the executive government is done by the Collector in one or another of his capacities-publican, auctioneer, sheriff, road-maker, timber-dealer, recruiting sergeant, slayer of wild beasts, bookseller, cattle-breeder, postmaster, vaccinator, discounter of bills, and registrar.’ It is difficult to see how one can bring all these departments under two headings; it is still more difficult to see how such diverse demands can possibly be met by a single official, especially by one little over twenty years of age coming from a distant country. No stay-at-home fitting himself snugly into a niche in the well-manned offices of Whitehall can expect to see his powers develop so rapidly or so rapidly collapse (whichever be his fate) as these solitary outposts of our empire, bearing, Atlas-like, a whole world on their shoulders.

With John Lawrence, fortunately, there was no question of collapse till many years of overwork broke down his physical strength. He grappled with the task like a giant, passing long days in his office or in the saddle, looking into everything for himself, laying up stores of knowledge about land tenure and agriculture, training his judgment to deal with the still more difficult problem of the workings of the Oriental mind. He had no friends or colleagues of his own at hand; and when the day’s work was done he would spend his evenings holding an informal durbar outside his tent, chatting with all and sundry of the natives who happened to be there. The peoples of India are familiar with pomp and outward show such as we do not see in the more prosaic west; but they also know a man when they see one. And this young man with the strongly-marked features, curt speech, and masterful manner, sitting there alone in shirt-sleeves and old trousers as he listened to their tales, was an embodiment of the British rule which they learnt to respect-if not to love-for the solid benefits which it conferred upon them. He had an element of hardness in him; by many he was thought to be unduly harsh at different periods of his life; but he spared no trouble to learn the truth, he was inflexibly just in his decisions, and his reputation spread rapidly throughout the district. In cases of genuine need he could be extremely kind and generous; but he did not lavish these qualities on the first comer, nor did he wear his heart upon his sleeve. His informal ways and unconventional dress were a bugbear to some critics; his old waywardness and love of adventure was still alive in him, and he thoroughly enjoyed the more irregular sides of his work. Mr. Bosworth Smith has preserved some capital stories of the crimes with which he had to deal, and how the young collector took an active part in arresting the criminals-stories that some years later the future Viceroy dictated to his wife.

But, after two years thus spent in constant activity and ever-growing mastery of his work, he had to come down in rank; the post was filled by a permanent official, and John Lawrence returned to the Delhi staff as an assistant.

He soon received other ‘acting appointments’ in the neighbourhood of Delhi, one of which at Etawa gave him valuable experience in dealing with the difficult revenue question. The Government was in the habit of collecting the land tax from the ‘ryot’ or peasant through a class of middle-men called ‘talukdars’, who had existed under the native princes for a long time. Borrowing perhaps from western ideas, the English had regarded the latter as landowners and the peasants as mere tenants; this had often caused grave injustice to the latter, and the officials now desired to revise the settlement in order to put all classes on a fair footing. In this department Robert Bird was supreme, and under his direction John Lawrence and others set themselves to measure out areas, to record the nature of the various soils, and to assess rents at a moderate rate. Still this was dull work compared to the planning of practical improvements and the conviction of dangerous criminals; and as, towards the end of 1839, Lawrence was struck down by a bad attack of fever, he was not sorry to be ordered home on long leave and to revisit his native land. He had been strenuously at work for ten years on end and he had well earned a holiday.

His father was now dead, and his favorite sister married, but of his mother he was for many years the chief support, contributing liberally of his own funds and giving his time and judgment to managing what the brothers put together for that purpose. In 1840 he was traveling both in Scotland and Ireland; and it was near Londonderry that he met his future wife, daughter of the Rev. Richard Hamilton, who, besides being rector of his parish, was an active justice of the peace. He met her again in the following summer, and they were married on August 26, 1841. Their life together was a tale of unbroken happiness, which was only ended by his death. A long tour on the Continent was followed by a severe illness, which threatened to forbid all prospect of work in India. However, by the end of that summer he had recovered his health enough to contemplate returning, and in October, 1842, he set sail to spend another sixteen years in laboring in India.

In 1843 he resumed work at Delhi, holding temporary posts till the end of 1844, when he became in his own right Collector and Magistrate of Delhi and Panipat. This time his position, besides involving much familiar work, threw him in the way of events of wider interest. Lord Hardinge, the Governor-General, on his way to the first Sikh war, came to Delhi, and was much impressed with Lawrence’s ability; and when he annexed the Doab of Jalandhar and wanted a governor for it, he could find no one more suitable than the young magistrate, who had so swiftly collected 4,000 carts and sent them up laden with supplies on the eve of the battle of Sobraon.

This was a great step in advance and carried John Lawrence ahead of many of his seniors; but it was promotion that was fully justified by events. He was not wanting in self-confidence, and the tone of some of his letters to the Secretary at head-quarters might seem boastful, had not his whole career shown that he could more than make good his promise. ‘So far as I am concerned as supervisor,’ he says, ‘I could easily manage double the extent of country’; and then, comparing his district with another, he continues: ‘I only ask you to wait six months, and then contrast the civil management of the two charges.’ As a fact, during the three years that he held this post, he was often acting as deputy for his brother Henry at Lahore, during his illness or absence, and this alone clears him of the charge of idle boasting. Jalandhar was comparatively a simple job for him, whatever it might be for others; he was able to apply his knowledge of assessment and taxation gained at Etawa, and need only satisfy himself. At Lahore, on the other hand, he had to consider the very strong views held by his brother about the respect due to the vested rights of the chiefs; and he studiously set himself to deal with matters in the way in which his brother would have done. The Sirdars or Sikh chieftains had inherited traditions of corrupt and oppressive rule; but the chivalrous Henry Lawrence always looked at the noble side of native character; and, as by his personal gifts he was able to inspire devotion, so he could draw out what was good in those who came under his influence. The cooler and more practical John looked at both sides, at the traditions, good and evil, which came to them from their forefathers, and he considered carefully how these chiefs would act when not under his immediate influence. Above all, he looked to the prosperity and happiness of the millions of peasants out of sight, who toiled laboriously to get a living from the land.

The second Sikh war, which broke out in 1848, can only be treated here so far as it affected the fortunes of the Lawrences. Lord Gough’s strategical blunders, redeemed by splendid courage, give it great military interest; but it was the new Viceroy, Lord Dalhousie, who decided the fate of the Punjab. He was a very able, hard-working Scotch nobleman, who devoted himself to his work in India for eight years with such self-sacrifice that he returned home in 1856 already doomed to an early death. But he was masterful and self-confident to a degree; and against his imperious will the impulsive forces of Charles Napier and Henry Lawrence broke like waves on a granite coast. He was not blind to their exceptional gifts, but to him the wide knowledge, coolness, and judgment of John Lawrence made a greater appeal; and when, after the victory of Chilianwala and the submission of the Sikh army in 1849, he annexed the Punjab, he decided to rule it by a Board and not by a single governor, and to direct the diverse talents of the brothers to a common end. He could not dispense with Henry’s influence among the Sikh chieftains, and John’s knowledge of civil government was of equal value.

Each would to a certain extent have his department, but a vast number of questions would have to be decided jointly by the Board, of which the third member, from 1850, was their old schoolfellow and friend Robert Montgomery. The friction, which resulted, was often intolerable. Without the least personal animosity, the brothers were forced into frequent conflicts of opinion; each was convinced of the justice of his attitude and most unwilling to sacrifice the interests of those in whom he was especially interested. After three years of the strain, Lord Dalhousie decided that it was time to put the country under a single ruler. For the honor of being first Chief Commissioner of the Punjab he chose the younger brother; and Sir Henry was given the post of Agent in Rajputana, from which he was promoted in 1857 to be the first Governor of Oudh.

It was a tragic parting. The ablest men in the Punjab, like John Nicholson and Herbert Edwardes, regarded Sir Henry as a father, and many felt that it would be impossible to continue their work without him. No Englishman in India made such an impression by personal influence on both Europeans and Asiatics. As a well-known English statesman said: ‘His character was far above his career, distinguished as that career was.’ But there is little doubt, now, that for the development of the new province Lord Dalhousie made the right choice. And there is no higher proof of the magnanimity of John Lawrence than the way in which he won the respect, and retained the services, of the most ardent supporters of his brother. His dealings with Nicholson alone would fill a chapter; few lessons are more instructive than the way in which he controlled the waywardness of this heroic but self-willed officer, while giving full scope to his singular abilities.

The tale of John Lawrence’s government of the Punjab is in some measure a repetition of his work at Panipat and Delhi. It had the same variety, it was carried out with the same thoroughness; but on this vast field it was impossible for him to see everything for himself. While directing the policy, he had to work largely through others and to leave many important decisions to his subordinates. The quality of the Punjab officials-of men who owed their inspiration to Henry Lawrence, or to John, or to both of them-was proved in many fields of government during the next thirty years. Soldiers on the frontier passes, judges and revenue officers on the plains, all worked with a will and contributed of their best. The Punjab is from many points of view the most interesting province in India. Its motley population, chiefly Musalmans, but including Sikhs and other Hindus; its extremes of heat and cold, of rich alluvial soil and barren deserts; its vast water-supplies, largely running to waste; its great frontier ramparts with the historic passes-each of these gave rise to its own special problems. It is impossible to deal with so complex a subject here; all that we can do is to indicate a few sides of the work by which John Lawrence had so developed the provinces within the short period of eight years that it was able to bear the strain of the Mutiny, and to prove a source of strength and not of weakness. He put the right men in the right places and supported them with all his power. He broke up the old Sikh army, and reorganized the forces in such a way as to weaken tribal feeling and make it less easy for them to combine against us. He so administered justice that the natives came to know that an English official’s word was as good as his bond. And, with the aid of Robert Napier and others, he so helped forward irrigation as to redeem the waste places and develop the latent wealth of the country. In all these years he had little recognition or reward. His chief, Lord Dalhousie, valued his work and induced the Government to make him K.C.B. in 1856; but to the general public at home he was still unknown.

In 1857 the crisis came. The greased cartridges were an immediate cause; there were others in the background. The sepoy regiments were too largely recruited from one race, the Poorbeas of the North-west Province, and they were too numerous in proportion to the Europeans; vanity, greed, superstition, fear, all influenced their minds. Fortunately, they produced no leader of ability; and, where the British officials were prompt and firm, the sparks of rebellion were swiftly stamped out; Montgomery at Lahore, Edwardes at Peshawar, and many others, did their part nobly and disarmed whole regiments without bloodshed. But at Meerut and Cawnpore there was hesitation; rebellion raised its head, encouragement was given to a hundred local discontents, little rills flowed together from all directions, and finally two great streams of rebellion surged round Delhi and Lucknow. The latter, where Henry Lawrence met a hero’s death in July, does not here concern us; but the reduction of Delhi was chiefly the work of John Lawrence, and its effect on the history of the Mutiny was profound.

He might well have been afraid for the Punjab, won by conquest from the most military race in India only eight years before, lying on the borders of our old enemy Afghanistan, garrisoned by 11,000 Europeans and about 50,000 native troops. It might seem a sufficient achievement to preserve his province to British rule, with rebellion raging all around and making inroads far within its borders. But as soon as he had secured the vital points in his own province (Multan, Peshawar, Lahore), John Lawrence devoted himself to a single task, to recover Delhi, directing against it every man and gun, and all the stores that the Punjab could spare. Many of his subordinates, brave men though they were, were alarmed to see the Punjab so denuded and exposed to risks; but we now see the strength of character and determination of the man who swayed the fortunes of the north. He knew the importance of Delhi, of its geographical position and its imperial traditions; and he felt sure that no more vital blow could be struck at the Mutiny than to win back the city. The effort might seem hopeless; the military commanders might hesitate; the small force encamped on the historic ridge to the west of the town might seem to be besieged rather than besiegers. But continuous waves of energy from the Punjab reinforced them. One day it was ‘the Guides’, marching 580 miles in twenty-two days, or some other European regiment hastening from some hotbed of fanaticism where it could ill be spared; another day it was a train of siege artillery, skilfully piloted across rivers and past ambushes; lastly, it was the famous moving column led by John Nicholson in person which restored the fortunes of the day. Through June, July, August, and half of September, the operations dragged wearily on; but thanks to the exertions of Baird Smith and Alexander Taylor, the chief engineers, an assault was at last judged to be feasible. After days of street fighting, the British secured control of the whole city on September 20th, and Nicholson, who was fatally wounded in the assault, lived long enough to hear the tale of victory. Without aid from England this great triumph had been won by the resources of the Punjab; and great was the moral effect of the news, as it spread through the bazaars.

This success did not exhaust Lawrence’s energy. For months after, he continued to help Sir Colin Campbell in his operations against Lucknow, and to correspond with the Viceroy, Lord Canning, and others about the needs of the time. More perhaps than any one else, he labored to check savage reprisals and needless brutality, and thereby incurred much odium with the more reckless and ignorant officers, who, coming out after the most critical hour, talked loudly about punishment and revenge. He was as cool in victory as he had been firm in the hour of disaster, and never ceased to look ahead to rebuilding the shaken edifice on sounder foundations when the danger should be past. It was only in the autumn of 1858, when the ship of State was again in smooth water, that he began to think of a holiday for himself. He had worked continuously for sixteen years; his health was not so strong as of old, and he could not safely continue at his post. He received a Baronetcy and the Grand Cross of the Bath from the Crown, while the Company recognized his great services by conferring on him a pension of £2,000 a year.

From these heroic scenes it is difficult to pass to the humdrum life in England, the receptions at Windsor, the parties in London, and the discussions on the Indian Council. He himself (though not indifferent to honorable recognition of his work) found far more pleasure in the quiet days passed in the home circle, the games of croquet on his lawn, and the occasional travels in Scotland and Ireland. Four years of repose were none too long, for other demands were soon to be made upon him. When Lord Elgin died suddenly in 1863, John Lawrence received the offer of the highest post under the Crown, and, before the end of the year, he was sailing for Calcutta as Governor-General of India.

In some ways he was able to fill the place without great effort. He had never been a respecter of persons; he had been quite indifferent whether his decisions were approved by those about him, and had always learnt to walk alone with a single eye to the public good. Also, he had such vast store of knowledge of the land and its inhabitants as no Viceroy before him for many decades. But the ceremonial fatigued him; and the tradition of working ‘in Council’, as the Viceroy must, was embarrassing to one who could always form a decision alone and had learnt to trust his own judgment.

Many of Lawrence’s best friends and most trusted colleagues had left India, and he had, seated at his Council board, others who did not share his views, and who opposed the measures that he advocated. Especially was this true of the distinguished soldier Sir Hugh Rose; and Lawrence had to endure the same strain as in 1850, in the days of the Punjab board. But he was able to do great service to the country in many ways, and especially to the agricultural classes by pushing forward large schemes of irrigation. Finance was one of his strong points, and any expenditure which would be reproductive was sure of his support owing to his care for the peasants and his love of a sound budget. The period of his Viceroyalty was what is generally called uneventful-that is, it was chiefly given up to such schemes as promoted peace and prosperity, and did not witness any extension of our dominions. Even when Robert Napier’s expedition went to Abyssinia, few people in England realized that it was organized in India and paid for by India; and the credit for its success was given elsewhere.

But it is necessary to refer to one great subject of controversy, which was prominent all through Lawrence’s career and with which his name is associated. This is the ‘Frontier Policy’ and the treatment of Afghanistan, on which two distinct schools of thought emerged. One school, ever jealous of the Russian advance, maintained that our Indian Government should establish agencies in Afghanistan with or without the consent of the Amir; that it should interfere, if need be, to secure the throne for a prince who was attached to us; that British troops should be stationed beyond the Indus, where they could make their influence felt beyond our borders. The other maintained that our best policy was to keep within our natural boundaries, and in this respect the Indus with its fringe of desert was second only to the high mountain chains; that we should recognize the wild love of independence which the Afghans felt, that we should undertake no obligations towards the Amir except to observe the boundaries between him and us. If the Russians threatened our territories through Afghanistan, the natives would help us from hatred of the invaders; but if we began to establish agents and troops in their towns, we should ourselves become to them the hated enemy.

One school said that the Afghans respected strength and would support us, if we seemed capable of a vigorous policy. The other replied that they resented foreign intrusion and would oppose Great Britain or Russia, if either attempted it. One said that we ought to have a resident in Kabul and Kandahar, the other said that it was a pity that we had ever occupied Peshawar, in its exposed valley at the foot of the Khyber Pass, and that Attock, where the Indus was bridged, was the ideal frontier post.

No one doubted that Lawrence would be found on the side of the less showy and less costly policy; and he kept unswervingly true to his ideal. The verdict of history must not be claimed too confidently in a land, which has seen so many races come and go. At least it may be said that the men who advocated advance were unable to make it good. Few chapters in our history are more tragic than the Afghan Wars of 1838-42 and 1878-80, though the last was redeemed by General Roberts’s great achievements. Our present policy is in accord with this verdict. There is to-day no British agency at Kabul or Kandahar; and the loyalty of the Amirs, during some forty years of faithful adherence on our part to this policy, have been sufficiently firm to justify Lawrence’s opposition to the Forward Policy. Today it seems easy to vindicate his wisdom; but in 1878, when the Conservative Government kindled the war fever and allowed Lord Lytton to initiate a new adventure, it was not easy to stem the tide, and Lawrence came in for much abuse and unpopularity in maintaining the other view.

But long before this happened he had returned to England. His term of office was over early in 1869, and his work in India was finished. His last years at home were quiet, but not inactive. In 1870 he was invited to become the first chairman of the new School Board for London, and he held this office three years. Board work was always uncongenial to him, and the subject was, of course, unfamiliar; but he gave his best efforts to the cause and did other voluntary work in London. This came to an end in 1876, when his eyesight failed, and for nearly two years he had much suffering and was in danger of total blindness for a time. A second operation saved him from this, and in 1878 he put forth his strength in writing and speaking vigorously, but without success, against Lord Lytton’s Afghan War. In June 1879, he was stricken with sudden illness, and died a week later in his seventieth year. It was hardly to be expected that one who had spent himself so freely, amid such stirring events, should live beyond the Psalmist’s span of life.

He had started at the bottom of the official ladder; by his own efforts he had won his way to the top; and his career will always be a notable example to those young Englishmen who cross the sea to serve the Empire in our great Dependency with its 300 million inhabitants. How the relations between India and Great Britain will develop-how long the connexion will last may be debated by politicians and authors; it is in careers like that of John Lawrence (and there were many such in the nineteenth century) that the noblest fruit of the connexion may be seen.

MLA Source Citation:

Blore, George Henry. Victorian Worthies, Sixteen Biographies. Oxford University Press, England. 1920. Web. 1 April 2014. - Last updated on Feb 10th, 2013

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