Lewis, Sir George Cornewall (1806–63), politician, author, and assistant commissioner of the poor law in Ireland, was born 21 April 1806 in London, elder son of Sir Thomas Frankland Lewis (1780–1855), later MP for Beaumaris (1812–26) and Ennis (1826–8), commissioner for Irish revenue (1821) and for Irish education (1825–8) and chairman of the English poor law commission (1834–9); and his wife, Harriet (d. 1838), daughter of Sir George Cornewall of Mochas, Herefordshire. George was educated at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford, where he graduated BA (1829) after a distinguished student career. He entered the Middle Temple in London (June 1828) and was called to the bar in 1831. Though he joined the Oxford circuit, he soon abandoned law for a career in scholarship and government service.
In August 1833 he was appointed assistant-commissioner to inquire into the conditions of the poorer classes in Ireland and on 28 December 1833 was directed to make a particular inquiry into the state of Irish labourers in Lancaster and Scotland. On 4 June 1834 he was made member of a commission of inquiry into the state of religious instruction in Ireland. He used the research gained on these inquiries to produce a very valuable account of the causes of unrest in Ireland: On local disturbances in Ireland; and on the Irish church question appeared in 1836. It was his fourth book; his first had been published when he was only 23. His Irish book was characteristically detailed and exhaustive, descriptive and prescriptive. Dismissing racial stereotypes, he elegantly summed up the problem: disturbances were a result of poverty, poverty arose from subdivision of land, which could be prevented by wide-scale clearances and restructuring of estates, this, however, would leave labourers destitute, inevitably giving rise to more disturbances. The answer was to provide the alternative of legal relief; he therefore recommended the extension of the English poor law to Ireland. This book, which reflected Lewis's painstaking research, empirical method, sympathy for his subjects, and formidable intellect, was reprinted in 1977. His reports are still cited as a useful source by historians, most recently by R. B. McDowell and David Fitzpatrick in A new history of Ireland, vol. v.
Lewis was officially invited by Lord Melbourne's (qv) government to comment on the report of the Irish poor inquiry commissioners (delivered early 1836) which recommended placing relief in the hands of local boards supervised by a national commission. Lewis scathingly dismissed the report as inefficient. His father, then chairman of the English poor law commission, sent to Ireland the commissioner George Nicholls, who concluded, like Lewis, that a poor law, based on the workhouse test, was the best solution. Their recommendations, rather than those of the Irish commissioners, were embodied in the poor relief act of 1838.
None of Lewis's subsequent career was spent in Ireland. In 1839 he succeeded his father as poor law commissioner for England and Wales, and served till his election as an MP for Herefordshire (1847–52). On the death of his father (1855) he succeeded to the baronetcy and to the family parliamentary seat for the Radnor boroughs, which he held till his death in 1863. His government career was distinguished; he served successively as under-secretary for the home office (1848–50), financial secretary to the treasury (1850–52), chancellor of the exchequer (1855–9), home secretary (1859–61), and secretary of war (1861–3). At the exchequer he often advocated expansionary spending in contrast to Gladstone's rigid insistence on balancing the books. He died in the middle of his political career, aged 56, on the family estate, Harpton Court, Radnorshire, on 13 April 1863. He married (26 October 1844) Maria Theresa, daughter of the Hon. George Villiers and widow of the writer Thomas Henry Lister. They had no children.
Lewis's administrative and political abilities were matched by his distinguished record of scholarship. He wrote twenty books and contributed articles to journals, including the London Review, Fraser's Magazine, and the Edinburgh Review, which he edited 1852–5. Formidably clever, he was known for his self-deprecating humour; he coined the well-known dictum that ‘life would be tolerable but for its amusements’. His interests were eclectic and included finance, linguistics, crime and social legislation, astronomy, ancient history, and contemporary British and French politics. After 1836 he wrote no more on Ireland.