Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Bethune, John Elliot Drinkwater

BETHUNE, JOHN ELLIOT DRINKWATER (1801–1851), an eminent Indian legislator and educationist, was the eldest son of Lieutenant-colonel John Drinkwater Bethune, C.B. and F.S.A. [q. v.], author of the 'History of the Siege of Gibraltar.' Having been educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, and called to the bar in 1827, Bethune was employed by Lord Grey's government, shortly after its accession to office, on several important commissions, and subsequently as counsel to the Home Office, which appointment he retained for nearly fourteen years. While holding this office he drafted, among many other legislative measures, the Municipal Reform Act, the Tithe Commutation Act, and the County Courts Act. In 1848 Bethune was appointed fourth ordinary, or legislative member of the Supreme Council of India, and after his arrival at Calcutta accepted the additional unpaid office of president of the Council of Education. In India, as in England, his principal official duties engaged him in the consideration of questions of legislative reform. Two of the most important of these were a bill for removing the exemption enjoyed by European British subjects from the jurisdiction of the criminal courts of the East India Company, and a bill for extending to the whole of British India the law passed for Bengal by Lord William Bentinck's government in 1832, relieving native converts to Christianity or to any other religrion from forfeiture of rights or property or of rights of inheritance. The first of these measures was postponed until the Indian penal code should have been enacted, and has not yet become law to the extent contemplated by Bethune and his colleagues; the second was passed a few months before his death. An act for establishing small cause courts at the presidency towns, upon the principle of the English county courts, was another of the measures which illustrated his career as a legislator.

As an educationist, Bethune's name is identified with the establishment at Calcutta of a school for educating native girls of the higher classes, which he endowed by his will with lands and other property in that city. This institution, still called the Bethune Girls' School, was for some time after Bethune's death supported by the governor-general. Lord Dalhousie, from his private funds, and was subsequently taken charge of by the state, by which it is still maintained.

Bethune died at Calcutta on 12 Aug. 1851, greatly lamented by all classes, native as well as European.

[Annual Reg. 1851, pp. 319–320; The Unrepealed Acts of the Grovernor-General of India in Council, vol. i.. Calcutta, 1875; Report of the Indian Education Commission, p. 525, Calcutta, 1883.]

A. J. A.