Sir George Grey

Sir George Grey

One of the most remarkable people who ever lived in New Zealand, Sir George Grey was a soldier, explorer, politician, writer and philanthropist. Twice Governor of New Zealand, Grey was a man of wide intellectual interests, fascinated with languages and the cultures they reflected, but also knowledgeable about science, natural history, literature and history. He took an active interest in Māori language and culture.

While politics left Grey little time to devote to scholarship, he amassed impressive collections of books and manuscripts.

Sir George Grey timeline

1812: Born in Lisbon, Portugal.

1826: Entered the Royal Military College.

1830: Was commissioned Ensign in the 83rd Foot Regiment and served for six years in Ireland.

1836: Proposed that he and another officer should explore the country to the north of Perth, Western Australia.

1837 and 1839: Led two expeditions in Western Australia, one to Hanover Bay, the other to Shark Bay. Published: A vocabulary of the dialects spoken by the aboriginal races of S. W. Australia.

1839: Married Eliza Lucy Spencer.

1841: Their only child, a son, was born but died five months later. Appointed Governor of South Australia.  Published: Journals of two expeditions of discovery in the North-West and Western Australia, during the years 1837, 38, and 39.

1840s: Donated books and artworks to the British Museum.

1845: Appointed Governor of New Zealand.

1853: Appointed Governor of the Cape Colony and High Commissioner for South Africa. Published Ko nga moteatea, me nga hakirara o nga Māori (The songs, chants and poetry of the Māori), based on material gathered in New Zealand.

1854: Published: Ko nga mahinga a nga tupuna Māori (The deeds of the Māori ancestors).

1857: Published: Ko nga waiata Māori (the songs of the Māori) and Ko nga whakapepeha me nga whakaahuareka a nga tipuna o Aotea-roa (proverbial and popular sayings of the ancestors of the New Zealand race).

1860: Separated from his wife. They were not to be reconciled for another 36 years.

1860: War broke out in Taranaki, New Zealand, over the disputed purchase of the Waitara block. Grey offered to return to New Zealand.

1861: Left South Africa and donated over 3500 volumes to the South African Public Library.

1863: Built a military road directly threatening the Waikato tribes. In July, invaded Waikato.

1868: Grey’s governorship was terminated by the British government. Grey went to England, where he failed in an attempt to enter Parliament as a Gladstonian Liberal. He then returned to New Zealand, where he lived in his splendid home on Kawau Island, in the Hauraki Gulf.

1870s: Hinted that he would make a donation to Auckland, once a free public library was established, similar to the one he had made in South Africa.

1874: Led the ultimately unsuccesful fight against Julius Vogel's proposal to abolish the provincial governments set up under the 1852 Constitution. The provinces formally ceased to exist on 1 January 1877.

1875: Elected superintendent of Auckland Province and also member of Parliament for Auckland City West.

1877: Became Premier of New Zealand.

1879: Resigned as Premier in October.

1883: Introduced a Confederation and Annexation Bill as a means of promoting British annexations. The bill was passed but led to no results.

1887:  Donated 8000 volumes to Auckland Public Library. This  was the first part of a collection which ultimately numbered about 14,000 volumes.

1889: Continued to serve as MP for Auckland Central, although in declining health. Successfully moved an amendment to the Representation Bill that called for the abolition of plural voting; that is, the practice of property owners voting in each electorate in which they possessed property.

1891: Chosen by Parliament to be one of the three New Zealand representatives at the Australian Federal Convention in Sydney. Opposed New Zealand's federation with Australia, favouring instead a loose federation of the Anglo-Saxon world.

1893: Re-elected to the House of Representatives.

1894:  Left for England and did not return.

1895: Resigned his seat in 1895.

1896: Reconciled with his wife, Eliza, but after a few weeks they parted again.

1898: Died on 19 September and buried in St Paul's Cathedral. Eliza also died the same year.


The timeline is based on from Keith Sinclair’s ‘Grey, George 1812 – 1898’. Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, updated 22 June 2007. Additional material: Auckland City Libraries, 2010.

The original version of this biography was published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography Volume One (1769-1869), 1990.