Sue Young Histories

Edward Ryan 1793 – 1875

April 23, 2009

Sir **Edward Ryan** PC FRS 1793 – 1875 was an English lawyer, judge, reformer of the British Civil Service and patron of science.

Edward Ryan was a friend of Charles Babbage, John Herschel, and Thomas Babington Macaulay, Ryan was born in London, the son of John Burke Ryan. He graduated from Trinity College, Cambridge in 1814 and while at Cambridge, he became friends with John Herschel, Charles Babbage, and George Peacock.

Ryan took his MA in 1817 and was called to the bar by Lincoln’s Inn in the same year.[1] It was Herchel’s sharing of his scientific interests and enthusiasms that encouraged Ryan to join the Royal Astronomical Society in 1820.

He practised on the Oxford circuit and published a volume of law reports jointly with William Oldnall Russell before being appointed a puisne judge in the supreme court Calcutta India, then an English colony . The appointment carried the customary knighthood. However, he would complete another book, this time with William Moody, before he left for India.

Ryan arrived in India in 1827 and soon established something of a salon. Victor Jacquemont was a visitor in 1829. Ryan was a keen patron of science, presiding over agricultural and horticultural societies, and a supporter of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge.

Secretary to the Board of Control Thomas Babington Macaulay had drafted a criminal code for India and Ryam’s support won him Thomas Babington Macaulay’s affection. Governor General Lord William Bentinck was also well disposed and when William Oldnall Russell, his old law report collaborator, died in 1833, Ryan was appointed Chief Justice of India.

He took sides with Thomas Babington Macaulay and Charles Trevelyan (brother in law of Thomas Babington Macaulay) in their campaign that education in India should be improved by the widespread teaching of English to give the population access to the educational and instructional materials of the English speaking world.

From 1835, the three served together on the general committee of public education until Thomas Babington Macaulay and Charles Trevelyan left for England in 1838 when Ryan took over as president of the committee.

Ryan resigned as Chief Justice and returned to England in January 1843 with the intention of acting as assessor to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council on appeals from the Indian courts. Consequently, he was sworn a Privy Councillor.

He went on to hold offices including, Permanent member of the Judicial Committee (1850-1865); Member of a royal commission on English criminal law (1845); Railway commissioner (1846-?); Assistant controller of the exchequer (1851-1862).

In 1850, Trevelyan campaigned along with Charles Hay Cameron for the opening of the Indian Civil Service to the native population and championed the appointment of Soorjo Coomar Goodeve Chuckerbutty to the Bengal medical service.

The Northcote Trevelyan report in 1854 had characterised the British Civil Service as riddled with cronyism and hampered by the inefficiencies of patronage. The report had recommended access to the higher ranks of the service by open competition and public examination.

Ryan became the inaugural First Civil Service Commissioner in 1855 with the task of implementing the reforms, and immediately faced the establishment backlash. However, Ryan was both intelligent and tactful and managed to supervise the trialling, evaluation and gradual introduction of universal tests by 1870. The commission also supervised exams for admission to the Indian Civil Service and the British Army.

In 1814 Ryan married Louisa née Whitmore (died 1860). His friend Charles Babbage married her sister, Georgiana, in the same year. The Ryans had at least two daughters and four sons, including:

  • Colonel Edward Moody Ryan (born 1824), of the Bengal army;
  • Colonel William Cavendish Bentinck Ryan (born 1833) also of the Bengal army, named for the Governor General of India;
  • Sir Charles Lister Ryan (1831–1920), comptroller and auditor general.

Ryan died at Dover.