Gray, Moses Wilson (1813–75), lawyer and politician, was born 26 March 1813 in Claremorris, Co. Mayo. Known as Wilson Gray, he was the second son of John Gray of Claremorris, a farmer and excise officer, and his wife Elizabeth Wilson. He was an elder brother of Sir John Gray (qv). After early education at Claremorris and at Hazlewood School near Birmingham, he entered TCD in 1831 and took his BA in 1835. That year, he served as an assistant commissioner to the royal commission on the condition of the poorer classes in Ireland; also on the commission was William McCullagh Torrens (qv), who became one of the strongest influences on both John and Wilson Gray.
From 1838 to 1843 Gray travelled extensively in the northern United States and Canada. He married (14 August 1843) Harriet Huntington, in Tecumseh, Michigan. Gray returned to Ireland with financial contributions for the repeal agitation, in which he played an active part. He supported Daniel O'Connell (qv), ‘associated intimately’ with the Young Ireland faction, and joined his brother, John, as a proprietor of the Freeman's Journal, bringing Thomas D'Arcy McGee (qv) to work on the paper. Gray's interest in the American land system led him back to the United States in 1847. The visit was connected with a plan to relocate the tenantry of the Bath estates. His ideas for Irish emigration were published as a pamphlet, Self-paying colonization in North America (Dublin, 1848). In 1850 John and Wilson Gray joined the tenant right movement, but soon withdrew from the Council of the League of North and South. Charles Gavan Duffy (qv) described this as the League's ‘first serious embarrassment’ (League of North and South, 111). Wilson Gray sold his share in the Freeman's Journal and accompanied Duffy to Victoria in 1855. His wife had returned to America with their only child, and they seem not to have been subsequently reunited. Wilson Huntington Gray (b. 24 April 1844 in Dublin) joined the 116th New York Volunteers and served in the civil war, attaining the rank of captain, and later practised law in Michigan.
Gray soon entered the controversy over the land question in Victoria. The Melbourne Age portrayed him as the founder of the Victoria Land League and its principal speaker. He was the inspiration behind the Victorian convention, and its first president. The convention was a body of more than sixty elected delegates, drawn from all parts of the state. In 1857 it sat continuously for almost a month in a hotel near parliament; thereafter it was represented by a permanent council. It condemned the land bill then passing through the legislative assembly and passed a rival set of land resolutions based on American precedents and the abolition of squatting tenure. The convention exerted an ‘immense influence’ in 1857–8 (Age, 2 July 1862), and there were frequent mass meetings of its followers. Gray was ultimately defeated in his quest for a liberal land law embodying convention principles. He was elected as the member for Rodney in the legislative assembly in January 1860 and reelected in 1861. Gray several times declined ministerial office, remaining instead with the ‘Corner’ faction of radical convention supporters in the house. He was accused of provoking an infamous riot outside Parliament House, Melbourne, in August 1860. Despite this blow to his political reputation and the decline of the Corner, he was regarded as the most popular member of the assembly at the time of his resignation in 1862.
Gray's public relationship with Duffy was strained. They clashed in 1858, when Duffy controversially claimed to be the father of the convention. Duffy made a similar assertion in his memoirs, noting also that the convention was modelled on the League of North and South. Gray's dissatisfaction with Duffy's land act of 1862 influenced his departure for Otago in that year. There he joined George Elliott Barton, his conventionist ally and a former Young Irelander, with whom he had ‘the closest and most brotherly friendship’ (Otago Witness, 10 Apr. 1875, 4). His sister and elder brother followed him to New Zealand.
Gray was admitted to the bar in Michigan, Ireland, Victoria, and finally New Zealand. He practised little, but was an able lawyer. In 1864 he became a district judge. Though more senior positions were offered to him in Australia and New Zealand, he endured instead a decade of hard travel on the Otago goldfields. He died, determined to do his duty, on his final circuit at Lawrence on 4 April 1875. There was much uncertainty in Gray's religious beliefs, but he was nevertheless buried with anglican rites.
Gray was revered in Otago and Victoria. Some 7,000 people attended his funeral in Dunedin. His tombstone was inscribed only with his name, for his friends believed that his greatness would speak for itself. The Otago provincial council commissioned a portrait by John Irvine to hang with those of the founders of the province. A bust stands in the Victorian parliamentary buildings. Gray's remarkable popularity rested on both his political action and his character. He was saintlike in his conscientiousness, modesty, and generosity; though he died a poor man, the first call on his estate, after meeting his debts, was in favour of Torrens's son. The payment of this and several other legacies meant that Gray had very little to leave to his own wife, son, or sister. His old adversary, the Melbourne Argus, wrote: ‘[t]here did not appear to be a taint of selfishness in his nature, in which the elements of gentleness and power, of poetic feeling and resolute will, were blended in happy proportion and maintained a beautiful equipoise’ (Argus, 17 Apr. 1875).