Sir John George Shaw-Lefevre was the second son of Charles Shaw, who assumed the additional name of Lefevre on his marriage with Helena, daughter and heiress of John Lefevre of Heckfield Place, Hampshire. John George was born at 11 Bedford Square, London, on 24 January 1797; initially he was educated at Eton and went up to Trinity College Cambridge. He graduated as a senior wrangler in 1818, and became a fellow of Trinity in 1819. He then spent some months abroad and made a tour in Italy, devoting himself to acquiring French and Italian. In 1822 he entered at the Inner Temple, was called to the bar in 1825, and before long met with some success as a conveyancer.
In 1832 Shaw-Lefevre was selected by government to settle the divisions of the counties for the purposes of the Reform Act of that year. His recommendations were embodied in a series of reports and maps which were the result of great labour; they were almost all accepted by parliament, and gave general satisfaction. In October 1833 he was elected to parliament as a liberal for Petersfield by a majority of one vote, but lost his seat on petition. Shortly afterwards he was specially selected by Edward Smith Stanley (afterwards thirteenth earl of Derby) to be his under-secretary at the colonial office. Here he at once became a member of the slave compensation commission. At the end of 1834 he was appointed one of the three commissioners to carry into effect the new Poor-law Amendment Act, and one of the commissioners under whose auspices the colony of South Australia was founded. He was also prominently connected at this period with the founding of the London University, of which for twenty years, from 1842 to 1862, he was annually elected vice-chancellor.
The severe work of reorganising the poor-law system told upon Shaw-Lefevre's health, and in 1841 he was transferred to the Board of Trade as joint-assistant secretary. He was almost immediately appointed one of the committee to inquire into the losses on exchequer bills, and in 1845 of the South Australia committee. In 1843 he became a member of the emigration commission. In 1846 he was requested to mediate as to differences which had arisen between the Royal Scottish Academy, the Edinburgh Royal Institute, and the board of manufactures; in the result he recommended the foundation of the National Academy at Edinburgh. In the same year he was offered but declined the governorship of Ceylon [Sri Lanka]. In 1847, having unsuccessfully contested the representation of the university of Cambridge, he was placed on the ecclesiastical commission. In this new capacity he devoted special attention to the questions of leases of church lands and the patronage of the bishops.
In 1848 Shaw-Lefevre was appointed deputy-clerk of the parliaments, but he still continued his work on commissions. In 1850 he proceeded to Edinburgh for the double purpose of reporting on the fishery board and making arrangements as to the unpopular annuity tax. He became a commissioner, with Lord Hatherley, for settling the claims of the church lessees; and when parliament reconstituted the ecclesiastical commission, he became the unpaid church estates commissioner. Later in the same year he successfully adjusted certain disputes as to pecuniary claims between the New Zealand Company and the colonial office. In 1851 he served with Lord Macaulay and others on the inquiry into the Indian civil service, which resulted in the adoption of open competition. In 1853 he served on the commission of inquiry into the inns of court and legal education.
In 1855 Shaw-Lefevre succeeded Sir George Henry Rose as clerk of the parliaments, and in the same year he and Sir Edward Ryan became the first two civil service commissioners, performing the functions which were afterwards vested in a paid commission. Although his multifarious duties told upon his health, it was only in 1862 that he resigned the office of civil service commissioner and the vice-chancellorship of the London University. He further served, with other specialists, as a member of the commissions on the digest of law (1866-70), restored standards (1868-70), and endowed schools (1869-71). As a member of the digest of law commission he took a share in the work of the Revised Edition of the Statutes and the Analytical Index to the Statutes Revised. He prepared an analysis of the standing orders of the House of Lords. He retired from office, on a pension, on 6 March 1875, and died on 20 August 1879.
Shaw-Lefevre became F.R.S. in 1820, a K.C.B. in 1857, and D.C.L. of Oxford in 1858. In 1850 he was elected a bencher of the Inner Temple. He was one of the founders of the Athenæum and Political Economy clubs. In 1871 he presided over the education department of the social science congress at Dublin.
He had a passion for acquiring languages, reading easily fourteen in all, including Hebrew. He began Russian after he was sixty-five. He translated and published The Burgomaster's Family (1873) from the Dutch; other translations into verse from different languages have not been published. In this, as in his official work, his patience in inquiry and quickness of insight were conspicuous.
Shaw-Lefevre married, in 1824, Rachel Emily, daughter of Ichabod Wright of Mapperley, Nottingham. His only son, the Right Hon. George John Shaw-Lefevre, was created Baron Eversley in 1906.
Stephen, Sir Lesley, and Sir Sidney Lee (eds.), Dictionary of National Biography: from the earliest times to 1900. London, Oxford University Press, 1949.
Last modified 18 October 2002