GRAY, ROBERT, office holder, politician, judge, and army and militia officer; b. c. 1747 near Glasgow; d. 12 Feb. 1828 in Charlottetown.
Like many Glasgow Scots, Robert Gray was employed in the American tobacco trade, and in 1771 he came out to Virginia as storekeeper and agent for a Glasgow tobacco merchant. Not surprisingly, when rebellion against Britain broke out in 1775, Gray supported the mother country and joined a volunteer corps raised by Governor Lord Dunmore. In 1777 he was appointed a captain in Colonel Edmund Fanning*’s King’s American Regiment, being in charge of the defence works on Goat Island during the rebel siege of Rhode Island in 1778. He later served in the fierce guerrilla warfare of the Carolinas, and was commanding the British garrison at Georgetown, S.C., at the time hostilities ceased. Gray then retired on half pay of £86 per annum and came to Shelburne, N.S., on a commission to assist in the disbanding of loyalist soldiers there. His wartime commander Fanning was appointed lieutenant governor of St John’s (Prince Edward) Island in 1786 and soon after invited Gray, whom he regarded as “a gentleman of superior merit and worth,” to become (at £60 per year) his private secretary and “man of business.” Gray arrived on the Island in 1787. Fanning appointed him to the Council, made him provincial treasurer, and gave him the unpaid post of assistant judge of the Supreme Court. He was also granted two town lots and two 12-acre pasture lots.
In 1790 Fanning sent Gray to England to lobby for new arrangements with the Island’s absentee proprietors, and to obtain the office of receiver general of quitrents, a post also sought by John Stewart, who is said to have offered to pay Gray £80 per year if he would withdraw his candidacy, although the office paid only £50. Stewart’s reputed bid was possible because the quitrents were never paid to the government, but, as Captain John MacDonald* of Glenaladale put it, went “to make a parcel of idle fellows live without work, and drink wine and debauch girls.” Gray did not pursue his claim to the office (which Stewart obtained), but he was still in London when a group of proprietors pressed charges of malfeasance against the Island’s major officers, including Fanning [see John Cambridge]. Gray mobilized support for the lieutenant governor among the proprietors and successfully argued his case before the Privy Council. Following his return to the Island in 1793, he gradually added a number of minor appointments, such as captain in the Island’s fencible companies, colonel of militia, and paymaster of volunteers, to his portfolio of offices. Although Gray continued to support Fanning publicly, he privately complained of the lieutenant governor’s close political association with the Stewart family, and gradually developed a reputation, unusual in Island politics, as an independent and unbiased official. His critics charged that he managed to remain free of factions by never doing anything.
Gray married Mary Burns (daughter of George Burns, an original proprietor) some time after 1793, and they had six children, including John Hamilton Gray*. He was active in organizing an agricultural society in Charlottetown in 1803, and especially after Fanning’s retirement in 1804 devoted much of his time to reading and literary pursuits. From November 1802 to September 1803, and again from August 1804 to July 1807, he served as acting chief justice and over the remainder of his life he attempted to gain remuneration for this service, as well as a regular salary as assistant judge. Between 1806 and 1808 he assisted the Burns interests in settling a large number of Guernsey immigrants on the Island.
Despite his increasingly low profile, Gray was unable to keep completely out of political controversy. In 1811 William Roubel and other members of the Loyal Electors, an incipient political party, made charges against the Supreme Court that prompted Chief Justice Cæsar Colclough and the assistant judges to call on Lieutenant Governor Joseph Frederick Wallet DesBarres, who had control of the affidavits containing the charges. Although no specific criticisms had been directed against Gray, he joined the delegation and his testimony about the lieutenant governor’s reaction to their visit helped destroy DesBarres’s credibility. Gray was no friend of the Loyal Electors, whom he called a “Club instituted for the avowed purpose of regulating and controlling the Government, and headed by two men without principle and without property. “He sat on the Court of Chancery, which in 1816 prosecuted one of those two men, lawyer James Bardin Palmer, for professional and political misconduct. Under Thomas Tremlett, Colclough’s successor, Gray often found himself a minority of one when the court came to split decisions, and although he protested he never made his concerns a public issue. In later years he became quite infirm, and died in 1828 after a long illness.
National Library of Ireland (Dublin), Dept. of mss, ms 20287 (5) (O’Hara papers), J. F. W. DesBarres, printed letter, 25 Sept. 1812. PAC, MG 23, E5, 2. PAPEI, Acc. 2702/643; Acc. 2810/132a; Acc. 2849/116; Acc. 3355/1–2; RG 1, commission books, 72: 5, 51; RG 3, “Memorial & petition of Robert Gray,” 28 Jan. 1825; RG 16, land registry records. P.E.I. Museum and Heritage Foundation (Charlottetown), File information concerning Robert Gray. PRO, CO 226/12, 226/18, 226/31, 226/39. SRO, GD293/2/78/2, 24. Prince Edward Island Register, 12, 26 Feb. 1828. Royal Gazette and Miscellany of the Island of Saint John (Charlottetown), 3 June 1793. J. M. Bumsted, “The Loyal Electors of Prince Edward Island,” Island Magazine, no. 8 (1980): 8–14.