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Sir Charles Wood, first Viscount Halifax (1800-1885)

This article was written by John Andrew Hamilton and was published in 1900.

HalifaxSir Charles Wood, first Viscount Halifax 1800-1885, eldest son of Sir Francis Lindley Wood, second baronet, by his wife Anne, daughter of Samuel Buck, recorder of Leeds, was born on 20 December 1800. He was educated at Eton and Oriel College, Oxford, whence he matriculated on 28 January 1818 as a gentleman commoner and took a double first class in 1821. He graduated B.A. on 17 December 1821 and M.A. on 17 June 1824. He was returned to parliament on 9 June 1826 as liberal member for Grimsby, but made no speech of importance until the question of the disfranchisement of East Retford arose. He was elected at Wareham in 1831, and on 14 December 1832 he was returned for Halifax, and continued to represent it for thirty-two years.

Wood's official career began on 10 August 1832, when he was appointed joint-secretary to the treasury; quitting this post in November 1834, he was transferred to the secretaryship of the admiralty in April 1835, and resigned with his brother-in-law, Lord Howick, in September 1839. Though he was a frequent speaker during Peel's second administration, he was by no means an advanced whig and only slowly accepted reforms of a radical character. He was not converted to the repeal of the corn laws till 1844, and with Bright strongly opposed the restrictions on the labour of women and children in Lord Ashley's Factory Act in the same year. He became chancellor of the exchequer under Lord John Russell on 6 July 1846, and was sworn of the privy council. On 31 December of the same year he succeeded to the baronetcy on his father's death. His financial administration was not brilliant, and can only be called successful when the difficulties with which he had to contend are fully allowed for.

In 1848 three budgets were introduced, and the increase of the income tax, which was Russell's proposal, had to be dropped by Wood within a few weeks, on 28 February He was a strenuous opponent in general both of new expenditure and of new taxes, and, although in 1847 he had obtained a select committee on commercial distress, in 1848 he had no other remedy for the condition of Ireland than to leave the excessive population to adjust itself to new conditions by natural means. He was, however, induced by his alliance with Lord Grey to approve his plan for a railway loan to Canada of five millions sterling. Wood was accordingly very unpopular, and, although in 1851 he kept his place among the changes produced by the ministerial crisis of that year and repealed the window tax, he was unregretted when the ministry fell in 1852.

Being exceedingly well informed upon Indian questions, he was appointed president of the board of control in the Aberdeen administration on 30 December 1852, and passed an excellent India Act in 1853. On 8 February 1855 he became a member of Lord Palmerston's cabinet as first lord of the admiralty, and succeeded in inducing parliament to keep up the number of men in the navy after the conclusion of the Crimean War. On 19 June 1856 he was created G.C.B. Resigning his office on 26 February 1858, he became secretary of state for India on 18 June 1859, and began an arduous but successful series of measures for adapting the government and finances of India to the new state of things arising after the extinction of the East India Company. He passed acts for limiting the number of European troops to be employed in India (1859), for reorganising the Indian army (1860), for regulating the legislative council and the high court (1861), and for amending the condition of the civil service. Obliged as he was to deal with railway extension, as well as with the disordered state of Indian finance, he was led to borrow largely, and for this growth of the Indian debt and for the dispute which led to the resignation of S. Laing, the Indian finance minister, in 1862, he was severely but unfairly blamed. The budgets of 1863, 1864, and 1865 were prosperous, and he was able both to reduce expenditure and to extinguish debt. In 1865 he lost his seat at Halifax, and was elected at Ripon; but in the autumn he met with a serious accident in the hunting field, which obliged him to give up all arduous official work. He resigned the Indian secretaryship on 16 February 1866, and on 21 February was raised to the peerage as Viscount Halifax of Monk Bretton. In the House of Lords he was an infrequent speaker, and his only return to official life was as lord privy seal from 6 July 1870 to 21 February 1874. He died at Hickleton in Yorkshire on 8 August 1885. He married, on 29 July 1829, Mary, fifth daughter of Charles Grey, second earl Grey. She predeceased him on 6 July 1884, leaving four sons and three daughters. The eldest son, Charles Lindley Wood, succeeded his father as second Viscount Halifax.

Lord Halifax was a man of greater influence in the governments of which he was a member than his contemporaries appreciated. He was sound in counsel, exceedingly widely and well informed, and an industrious, punctual, and admirable man of business. He was thus both efficient as a departmental administrator and valuable as a cool and sound judge of policy. As a speaker he was tedious and ineffective and hampered by vocal defects, and his weight in the House of Commons was due to his knowledge of public affairs.

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