Taylor, Sir John James (1859–1944), civil servant, was born 18 May 1859 in Umballa, India, the third of eight children of James Benjamin Taylor, a paymaster sergeant in the 27th (Inniskilling) Regiment of Foot of the British army, and Barbara Taylor (née Keely). Taylor lived in India until 1864, when his family returned to Ireland to live at Charles Fort, Kinsale, Co. Cork, and by 1871 was living at Arbour Hill in Dublin.
Taylor sat the civil service entry exam on 21 November 1876 and became a clerk of the lower division in February 1877, working with the Local Government Board in Dublin. In March 1878 he was promoted to clerk of the lower division in the chief secretary’s office. In 1889 he was promoted to a clerkship of the higher division in chief secretary’s office, based on a special recommendation by Arthur Balfour (qv), chief secretary for Ireland, and given administrative responsibility for a department established in 1890 for the relief of distress in the west of Ireland.
Taylor was soon working closely with the most senior British officials in Ireland, beginning with his appointment as private secretary (1892–3) to Sir West Ridgeway (qv), under-secretary for Ireland. In 1893 he was sent by John Morley (qv), chief secretary for Ireland, to work at the Irish office in London, where he spent several years. During this time Taylor was appointed assistant private secretary (1903–5) to George Wyndham (qv), chief secretary for Ireland, and to Wyndham’s successor, Walter Long (qv). In 1906 Taylor was appointed secretary of the Department of Agriculture Committee.
By 1911 Taylor had risen to the position of principal clerk in the chief secretary’s office, where he remained until 1918 and served under chief secretaries Augustine Birrell (qv) and Henry Edward Duke (qv). Head of the finance division in 1916, Taylor also served as a member of the rebellion (victims) committee, established to compensate victims of the 1916 Easter rising. In June 1918 Taylor was appointed assistant under-secretary to Viscount French (qv), lord lieutenant of Ireland, and as clerk of the privy council and deputy keeper of the privy seal. The following year he was appointed to a viceregal commission established to recommend reforms in the organisation and pay of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP). The commission delivered its report in May 1920; Taylor was one of four signatories to a minority report recommending the amalgamation of the RIC and DMP.
Taylor’s elevation to assistant under-secretary coincided with (and contributed to) a ‘deepening politicisation’ of the Dublin Castle administration, and a retrenchment of British policy in Ireland to one of coercion rather than dialogue (Maguire, 69–70). As the dominant personality of a small group of senior civil servants who exercised considerable influence over the lord lieutenant, especially during the first year of the war of independence, Taylor was to the fore in advocating a strong security response to the escalating unrest and disorder. Early in 1920 he was instructed by Viscount French to devote his efforts to investigating political crimes and to use his expertise as former head of the finance branch to follow the money used to fund the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the dáil. To this end, he worked closely with Alan Bell (qv), a resident magistrate and former member of the RIC, who was subsequently assassinated by the IRA in March 1920. As a result of his investigations, Taylor and his family were forced for their safety to reside at Dublin Castle for the last six months of his tenure as assistant under-secretary.
That tenure ended with the announcement of his retirement at the end of May 1920 after more than forty years in the civil service. Despite the longevity of his career, the timing of Taylor’s retirement was not entirely of his own choosing. A root and branch review of the Irish civil service was conducted in May 1920 by Sir Warren Fisher, who had recently overseen a major review and reform of the British civil service in London. Fisher’s analysis exposed serious deficiencies in the Dublin Castle administration; his report recommended sweeping reforms, both of its structures and personnel. Taylor did not escape Fisher’s criticisms, who found that the role of the under-secretary had been effectively usurped, with too much of the administration’s work concentrated in Taylor’s hands. Though careful to veil his criticisms of Taylor with a veneer of praise, highlighting an ‘exceptional working capacity’ and his unavoidable unpopularity as one of the more visible faces of Dublin Castle, Fisher left no doubt that Taylor’s departure was an important step in reforming the administration, as well as more in keeping with the British government’s intention to reorient its policies in Ireland. Upon his retirement, both Ian MacPherson (qv), the chief secretary of Ireland, and Viscount French lauded Taylor’s devotion, courage, and sense of duty.
Taylor’s request for reassignment to another post within the British civil service was denied, though he received £3,000 compensation in recognition of the sudden circumstances of his departure from Ireland, which had necessitated the hasty sale of his house and some of its contents. Taylor had in fact submitted a claim for £11,070, based both on the dangerous nature of his work from 1919 onwards and his belief that he would have remained in post for another seven years under normal circumstances (the latter claim was vigorously denied by the British Treasury, which insisted that while exceptions could be made, no civil servant had a right to serve beyond the age of sixty). Taylor’s claim was strongly supported by Walter Long, who observed that both David Lloyd George and Andrew Bonar Law had expressed the view that senior Irish officials should be generously rewarded for their work from 1919 onwards. When the Treasury considered the claim, one of its senior officials described it as preposterous, while Fisher advised that Taylor had already been sufficiently rewarded by advancement to a station beyond his capabilities. After it became clear that an award of £11,070 was out of the question, Long pressed for a compromise of £6,000, describing Taylor as a ‘public servant who has given of his best to the state, and who has suffered, and must continue to suffer, for his loyalty’ (Long to Fisher, 23 June 1920, National Archives (UK), T/1/12592).
Taylor received numerous honours during his career, including the companion of the Imperial Service Order (1903), companion of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath (1905) and knight commander of the Order of the Bath (1919). He married Mary Elizabeth Keely, daughter of Patrick and Elizabeth Keely from Philadelphia, USA, at St Joseph’s catholic chapel in North Dublin on 14 July 1884. They resided at ‘Pennsylvania’, 12 Bushy Park Road, Dublin, from 1899 to 1920 (the house was then sold to Erskine Childers (qv)) and had two sons and two daughters. In April 1919, Taylor was notified of the death of one of his sons, Major Francis Taylor, who was killed while serving with British forces in Russia during the Russian civil war.
Sir John James Taylor died on 14 January 1945 while residing at 18 Marsworth Avenue, Hatch End, Middlesex. He was survived by his wife, who died ten years later on 13 January 1955. Both are buried in Northwood cemetery, Hillington, England. Reporting on his departure from the Dublin Castle administration, the Irish Independent described Taylor as the ‘real ruler’ of Ireland, an assessment that, while overstating his importance to the British administration in Ireland, neatly conveys how deeply he had embedded himself at the heart of the Dublin Castle administration during its final years, and the extent to which he had become synonymous in the public eye with its deeply unpopular policies.