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Sir William Henry Gregory

1816 - 1892

This person is the subject of ongoing research. We have started by researching their relationship to the enslavement of people.

Biographical notes

Anglo-Irish writer and politician, and colonial governor.

National Gallery Trustee (1867–1892).

Summary of activity

Gregory was the son of Robert Gregory of Coole Park, County Galway, and Elizabeth O‘Hara. In 1842 he was elected Conservative MP for Dublin. During the Irish potato famine he became known for the ’Gregory Clause‘, whereby anyone who owned more than a quarter of an acre was not eligible for relief. In 1850 he was appointed high sheriff for Galway. In the 1850s financial difficulties, partly caused by his addiction to horse racing, led him to sell more than half of his estate. In April 1857 he was elected as Liberal-Conservative for County Galway. In 1871 he was appointed governor of Sri Lanka (former Ceylon), and spent five years there from 1872.

In 1859 he travelled to America, where he met and was influenced by southern Congressmen such as James Murray Mason, who became a Confederate Emissary to London. During the American Civil War Gregory was a champion of the Confederacy, the pro-slavery southern states, considering that it would be good for trade, with the Confederacy providing England with raw materials and in turn buying its manufactured goods. In 1861 he introduced a bill for the recognition of the Confederate government. In an unsigned letter of 5 March 1863 (to John Rutherfoord, who had served as Acting Governor of Virginia from 1841–2) he wrote: ’ – I believe, although your countrymen are sorely irritated against our Government that they will remember how we have resisted all the strong appeals to the antislavery feeling of England, and that the English press has with one accord almost been thoroughly with you. Hence my hopes are that our relations with the Southern States will be of the happiest character−‘. (Nannie M. Tilley, ’Documents. England and the Confederacy. A Letter of Sir William Henry Gregory', The American Historical Review, vol. 44, no. 1, 1938, 56–60; JSTOR, <> accessed 17 June 2021.)

His second wife was Isabella Augusta, Lady Gregory, who cofounded the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. He was a supporter of the arts, and in 1867 was appointed a trustee of the National Gallery.

Slavery connections

During the American Civil War Gregory was a champion of the Confederacy: ‘In New York he found the merchants ardent in their vindication of slavery, and in Washington he fell under the influence of the Southern members of Congress. Actuated by motives of imperialism, Gregory reasoned, from previous opposition of the South to the Northern protective system, that an independent Confederacy would provide England with a reliable source of raw materials as well as a market for manufactured goods’. (Nannie M Tilley, ‘England and the Confederacy’, The American Historical Review, vol. 44, no. 1, 1938, 56; JSTOR, <> accessed 17 June 2021.) In fact many British companies and merchants profited from the American Civil War as they provided the Confederacy with supplies, and in the case of Glasgow supplied them with blockade-runner ships. Furthermore, British companies still bought American produced cotton.

Abolition connections

No known connections with abolition.

National Gallery painting connections

Donor: Gregory bequeathed in 1892: Probably by Bernardino da Asola, The Adoration of the Shepherds (NG1377); Spanish, Landscape with Figures (NG1376); After Jan Steen, An Itinerant Musician saluting Two Women in a Kitchen (NG1378); Diego Velázquez, Kitchen Scene with Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (NG1375).


C. L. Falkiner and P. Gray, 'Gregory, Sir William Henry', in C. Matthew et al. (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford 1992-,
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History of Parliament Trust (ed.), The History of Parliament: British Political, Social & Local History, London 1964-,
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J. Turner et al. (eds), Grove Art Online, Oxford 1998-,
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UCL Department of History (ed.), Legacies of British Slave-ownership, London 2020,
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