Charles Edward Trevelyan


British civil servant. Charles Edward Trevelyan was born 2 April 1807, in Taunton, England. His father George (1764–1827) was an Anglican archdeacon. He was educated at Taunton grammar school, Charterhouse, and East India College, Haileybury. In 1826 he joined the East India Company’s Bengal civil service.

In 1827 he was appointed assistant to Sir Charles Metcalfe, the Commissioner at Delhi. He devoted himself to improving the conditions of the Indian population and tackling corrupt British administration there. He also donated some of his own money for public works in Delhi. He carried out inquiries that led to the abolition of transit duties which had long hindered the internal trade of India. In 1831 he was removed to Calcutta, and became the Deputy Secretary to the government in the political department.

Trevelyan was especially anxious to give Indians a European education. In 1835, largely owing to his persistence, the Government decided to educate the Indians in European literature and science. He published an account of this in On the education of the people of India. In 1838 he returned to England.

In 1840 he became Assistant Secretary to the Treasury in London and held that office until 1859. This position put him in charge of the administration of Government relief to the victims of the Irish Famine in the 1840s. In the middle of that crisis Trevelyan published his views on the matter. He saw the Famine as a

‘mechanism for reducing surplus population’.

But it was more:

‘The judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated. …The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people’.

Such racist and sectarian views of the Irish were common enough within the English governing classes and were more crudely expressed by others. For the most part, Trevelyan’s views reflected the prevailing Whig economic and social opinion and that of the Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, who held office from 1846 until 1852.

Trevelyan was stiff and unbending. He firmly believed in laissez faire (essentially, the importing of food should be left to the food merchants), he thought that the Government should not intervene, and warned of the danger that people might get into the habit of depending on the state. From March 1846 he controlled the public works through the disbursement of public funds. Under Trevelyan, relief by public works in 1846–7 was too little too late but also it was slow, inefficient and sometimes corrupt. He defended the export of grain from famine-stricken Ireland on the grounds that the Government should not interfere with free trade. When his own administrators described this export of food as ‘a most serious evil’ Trevelyan refused even to consider banning it. When rioting broke out in protest against at the export of corn, he sent 2,000 troops, provisioned with beef, pork and biscuits,

‘to be directed on particular ports at short notice’.

He was against railway construction as a form of relief and successfully opposed Russell’s scheme for the distribution of some £50,000 worth of seed to tenants. The failure of government relief schemes finally became clear to Trevelyan and early in 1847 soup kitchens were organised under a high-level government commission. It worked badly.

In the autumn of 1847, Trevelyan ended government-sponsored aid to the distressed Poor Law districts although there was an outbreak of cholera. He declared that the Famine was over, and that from now on Irish landlords were to be responsible for financing relief works. He gained a well-deserved reputation as a cold-hearted and uncompassionate administrator. On 27 April 1848 he was given a knighthood for his services to Ireland. The Irish Crisis published in 1848 contains his unsympathetic views on the Famine and its victims.

After the Famine in Ireland, he continued to play an important role in government in England and its colonies. In 1853 he headed an inquiry on how to improve the civil service. His work transformed it. Higher educational standards and competitive admission examinations made the civil service better qualified and more efficient. Regarded as the father of the modern civil service, he was portrayed as Sir Gregory Hardlines in Anthony Trollope’s novel The three clerks (1858).

In 1858, after the uprising known as the Indian Mutiny, Trevelyan returned to India as governor of Madras where his reforms were important, especially police reform.

He returned to India as finance minister from 1862 to 1865. His time in office was marked by important administrative reforms and by extensive measures for the development of the resources of India by means of public works. He was made a baronet in 1874. On his return England in 1865 he directed his energy to the organisation of the army. Later he got involved in a variety of social problems, notably, charities and pauperism. He died at 67 Eaton Square, London, 19 June 1886.

Writings & Studies. Sir Charles Trevelyan, The Irish crisis, being a narrative of the measures for the relief of the distress caused by the Great Irish Famine of 1846–7 (London 1880), repr. from the Edinburgh Review 175 (Jan. 1848). Thomas P. O’Neill, ‘The organisation and administration of relief, 1845–52’, in R. D. Edwards & T. D. Williams (ed), The Great Famine (Dublin 1956) 209–60; repr. with intro. by Cormac Ó Gráda (Dublin 1994). Cecil Woodham-Smith, The Great Hunger: Ireland, 1845–9 (London 1962). Mary Daly, The Famine in Ireland (Dundalk 1986). J. M. Hernon, ‘A Victorian Cromwell: Sir Charles Trevelyan, The Famine and the age of improvement’, Éire-Ireland 22 (1987) 15–29. Cormac Ó Gráda, The Great Irish Famine (London 1989). Christine Kinealy, This Great Calamity: the Great Irish Famine, 1845–52 (Dublin 1994). Noel Kissane, The Irish Famine: a documentary history (Dublin 1995) 45–59. Cathal Póirtéir (ed), The Great Irish Famine (Dublin 1995). Christine Kinealy, A death-dealing Famine: the great hunger in Ireland (Chicago & London 1997). Cormac Ó Gráda, Black ’47 and beyond: the great Irish Famine in history, economy, and memory (Princeton NJ 1998). Christine Kinealy, The great Irish famine: impact, ideology, and rebellion (Basingstoke 2002). Robin Haines, Charles Trevelyan and the Great Irish Famine (Dublin 2004).

Tomás O’Riordan