H. S. Cunningham

(Henry Stewart Cunningham)

In This Collection

Other Works by Henry Stewart Cunningham (1832–1920)

  • A Digest of Hindu Law. London: Higginbotham, 1877
  • British India and Its Rulers. London: W. H. Allen, 1881.
  • Earl Canning. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1891.


Cunningham, Sir Henry Stewart (1832–1920), lawyer and novelist, was born at the vicarage, Harrow, Middlesex, on 30 June 1832, the fifth son and penultimate child of the fourteen children of the Revd John William Cunningham (1780–1861); Henry was the third of the four children from his father’s second marriage, to Mary Calvert (1800–1849), a general’s daughter and the sister of Sir Harry Verney, model Christian landowner. The vicarage was a stronghold of educated evangelicalism. Henry’s mother intended him for the church, and he was sent to Mr Renaud’s evangelical school at Bayford, Hertfordshire, before attending Harrow School (1845–51), where his father had been a governor since 1818. At Harrow he won the Peel medal. He then spent four months as a private tutor in Norwich before matriculating at Trinity College, Oxford, in 1851, where he took a second class in Greats (1856) and won the chancellor’s prize for the English essay.

On 10 June 1859 Cunningham was called to the bar of the Inner Temple, London. He supplemented his earnings by writing: in the summer of 1860 he was in Italy reporting on Garibaldi’s successes, and in 1861 his first novel, Wheat and Tares, was published. His paternal uncle Francis Cunningham, vicar of Lowestoft, Suffolk, and his wife, the former Richenda Gurney, were recognized as the model for the clerical household in this—not unkind—satirical account of the evangelical milieu of a fashionable watering-place. Five other novels followed, all of which demonstrate a fondness for Latin tags and a tendency for the comedy of manners to sit uneasily with a romantic plot in which a serious illness, or tragic death, effects a morally educative lesson.

On his father’s death in 1861, Cunningham and his younger sister, Emily, moved to 6 Craven Hill, Hyde Park, London, but the household had to be dismantled in 1866 when his partner in a tea firm, in which he had invested his own and other relatives’ money, absconded, leaving him bankrupt. Later that year he became government advocate and legal adviser to the Punjab. He was joined first by Emily and then by his brother-in-law, Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, in whose task of codifying Indian law he became involved in 1871. After a break in Simla, he served as advocate-general in Madras from 1872 (possibly 1873) to 1877: appointed a member of the famine commission, he drew upon the expertise of another family connection, Florence Nightingale. On furlough, he married, on 28 July 1877, the Hon. Harriett Emily Lawrence (d. 1918), daughter of John Laird Lawrence, first Baron Lawrence, who had been viceroy of India when Cunningham first arrived. The couple returned to Calcutta, where he became a high court judge (1877–87). In 1881 the famine commission made its report, and he published British India and its Rulers (1881), a conservative appraisal of Britain’s imperial rule. Two of his novels, The Chronicles of Dustypore (1875) and The Coeruleans: a Vacation Idyll (1887), offer shrewd portraits of Anglo-Indian society. In 1887 he and his wife returned to England, accompanied by their son Lawrence (b. 1878) and daughter (b. 1887).

Cunningham was created KCIE in January 1889, assumed several financial directorships, and campaigned on public health issues both in India and in London. His penultimate novel, The Heriots (1890), a tale of the upper-class English society in which he and his family now lived, and who divided their time between London and Brighton, was much fêted by his contemporaries. He died on 3 September 1920 at his home, 83 Eaton Place, London, and was buried on the 7th in the churchyard at Banstead, Surrey.

Wealth at Death: £35,871 5s. 9d.: probate, 22 Oct 1920.

(Oxford Dictionary of National Biography)