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Forrest, Sir George William David Stark (1845–1926), historian, was born at Nasirabad, near Ajmer, India, on 8 January 1845, the second son of Captain George Forrest (1803/4–1859), of the Bengal artillery, and his wife, Ann Edwards (b. 1816/17). Captain Forrest was one of three surviving officers awarded the Victoria Cross for the defence of the Delhi magazine on 11 May 1857; he died from his wounds in November 1859, whereupon his widow and children returned to Britain. The elder son, Robert Edward Trexton Forrest (1835–1914), did twenty-one years' service in the irrigation branch of India's public works department before retiring to write Indian potboilers, including Eight Days (1891) and The Bond of Blood (1896).

George Forrest was educated privately until he entered St John's College, Cambridge, as a pensioner in 1866. He gained a BA in mathematics in 1870 and afterwards read law, but although admitted to the Inner Temple in 1872, he was never called to the bar and in December 1872 he became headmaster at Surat high school. It was a career switch perhaps dictated by limited finances, for Forrest did not like teaching and moreover suffered perennial ill health in the land of his birth. He was home on sick leave from June 1874 to August 1876 and again in 1877, when he married Emma Georgina (b. 1850/51), daughter of Thomas Viner of Broadfield, Crawley, Sussex, on 6 August. In June 1879 he was appointed professor of mathematics at Deccan College, Poona. In 1882 he was additionally given charge of the Bombay census office, but writing was his first love and throughout these years he poured out a stream of journalism. He later recalled how, as correspondent for The Times, he had been the first to alert London to Britain's defeat at Maiwand in Afghanistan in July 1880.

In 1884 Forrest entered upon the real work of his life with the publication of Selections from the Official Writings of Mountstuart Elphinstone, Bombay's paternalistic governor from 1819 to 1827, after which he was seconded to examine the records preserved in the Bombay secretariat—a task which bore fruit in a Maratha (1885) and a home (1887) series of state papers. In April 1888, after some months as professor of English and history at Elphinstone College, Forrest was finally freed from teaching duties to become the first director of records at Bombay. Shortly afterwards he was summoned to investigate the official records at Calcutta, a duty from which he produced his first volume of Selections from the State Papers in the Foreign Department (1890). Under Lord Lansdowne's viceregal patronage, Forrest went on to create and preside over the Imperial Record Office at Calcutta. He was acutely aware of the bureaucracy's resistance to his brainchild and took every opportunity to press upon Lansdowne examples from the past that would illuminate contemporary conundrums. While in Calcutta, he also worked in the patents branch (1894–1900) and as assistant secretary to the government (1898).

Although superficially successful, Forrest often felt his work to be undervalued. Inevitably his journalism got him into trouble, as in 1889, when the governor of Bombay, Lord Reay, christened him ‘the Liar’, and accused him of maligning the provincial administration because he had been refused promotion. This was unfair: Forrest was certainly not self-denying but he never wrote out of pique. To him history was brimming with relevance and he was convinced of its utility in preventing the repetition of past mistakes. Accordingly, his pamphlet The Famine in India (1897) shows the imperial administration on a whiggish learning curve, imbibing new truths from old administrative failures.

In 1900 ill health forced Forrest to retire. He was bitterly disappointed at missing Lord Curzon's viceroyalty and from England urged him on with plans for the Victoria Memorial. He continued to write histories, including The Life of Field-Marshal Sir Neville Chamberlain (1909), Selections from the State Papers of the Governors-General of India: Warren Hastings (2 vols., 1910), and a time-consuming documentary History of the Indian Mutiny (3 vols., 1904–12). Craving recognition for his work, Forrest was a better judge of a dead subject than a living one: his Life of Lord Roberts (1914) lacks the distance and impartiality of his mutiny studies. By contrast, in The Life of Lord Clive (2 vols., 1918) Forrest allows his subject's letters to speak for themselves, with little authorial intervention.

Forrest was knighted in 1913 and lived to see government record offices all over India undertake ambitious publishing programmes. In his latter years he enjoyed a reputation in Oxford and at the Savile Club in London as a convivial, amusing companion—a sign perhaps that he had outgrown his early insecurities. He died on 28 January 1926 at his home, Iffley Turn House, near Oxford, and was buried at Iffley church, on 30 January. Among the mourners were his widow, a son, Viner Forrest, and a daughter, Mrs Harlow. It was fitting that a last work, Selections from the State Papers of the Governors-General of India: Lord Cornwallis (2 vols., 1926), appeared posthumously. In his commentaries Forrest always celebrated imperial advance. Nevertheless, in making so many documents available to the public he had opened the way for a new type of history of British India, one that broke with the privileged narratives of inside men such as J. W. Kaye: it was a lasting achievement.

Katherine Prior

Sources  

History of services of gazetted officers … in the Bombay presidency (1890) · The Times (29 Jan 1926), 14 · The Times (1 Feb 1926) · letters from Forrest to Lord Curzon, BL OIOC, Curzon MSS · letters from Forrest to Lord Lansdowne, BL OIOC, Lansdowne MSS · ecclesiastical records, BL OIOC · WWW · Venn, Alum. Cant. · m. cert.

Archives  

Bodl. Oxf., papers |  BL OIOC, Curzon MSS · BL OIOC, Lansdowne MSS


Wealth at death  

£368 3s. 5d.: probate, 28 April 1926, CGPLA Eng. & Wales