Sykes, William Henry (DNB00)


SYKES, WILLIAM HENRY (1790–1872), naturalist and soldier, son of Samuel Sykes of Friezing Hall, Yorkshire, the descendant of the Drighlington branch of an old Yorkshire family, was born on 25 Jan. 1790. He entered the military service of the East India Company as cadet in 1803, obtained a commission on 1 May 1804, and was promoted to a lieutenancy on 12 Oct. 1805. He was present at the siege of Bhurtpur under Lord Lake in 1805. In 1810 he passed as interpreter in the Hindustani and Mahratta languages. He served in the Deccan from 1817 to 1820, took part in the battles of Kirkee and Poona, and aided in the capture of the hill forts. He obtained a captaincy on 25 Jan. 1819, returned to Europe in 1820, and spent four years travelling on the continent.

In October 1824 he returned to India, receiving the appointment of statistical reporter to the Bombay government. For the next few years he was engaged in statistical and natural history researches, and completed a census of the population of the Deccan, two voluminous statistical reports, and a complete natural history report illustrated by drawings. On 8 Sept. 1826 he was promoted to the rank of major, and on 9 April 1831 to that of lieutenant-colonel. Owing to the call for retrenchment, the office of statistical reporter was abolished in December 1829; but he obtained leave to forego his military duties and carry on the duties of his office gratuitously till the work should be completed. He finished in January 1831 and embarked for Europe on furlough, receiving the thanks of the government for his exertions. In April 1833 and again in 1853 he gave evidence before a committee of the House of Commons on Indian affairs. He retired from active service with the rank of colonel on 18 June 1833. In September 1835 he accepted an invitation to undertake the duties of a royal commissioner in lunacy, and performed them gratuitously till the reconstruction of the lunacy commission in 1845. His knowledge of Indian affairs led to his being elected in 1840 to the board of directors of the East India Company, of which he became deputy chairman in 1855 and chairman in 1856.

In 1847 he unsuccessfully contested the parliamentary representation of Aberdeen with Captain Dingwall Fordyce, but in 1857 was returned for that city in the liberal interest against John Farley Leith, and held the seat until his death. He had in the interval (March 1854) been elected lord rector of the Marischal College. Sykes was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1834, and served more than once on its council; he was a member of the Royal Asiatic Society, and its president in 1858; he was one of the founders of the Statistical Society and president in 1863; he was also chairman of the Society of Arts. He died in London on 16 June 1872. In 1824 he married Elizabeth, youngest daughter of William Hay of Renistoun, and left issue.

Sykes was a zealous scientific observer, his favourite pursuits being zoology, palæontology, and meteorology. Forty-five papers on these subjects were contributed by him to various scientific journals, besides many others on antiquities, statistics, and kindred subjects.

He was also author of:

  1. ‘Vital Statistics of the East India Company's Armies in India, European and Native,’ 8vo [1845?].
  2. ‘The Taeping Rebellion in China,’ 8vo, London, 1863.

[Biographical Notices of Colonel W. H. Sykes, 1857, with manuscript appendix by James Sykes; Proc. Roy. Soc. 1871–2, obit. p. xxxiii; Aberdeen Journal, 19 June 1872, p. 8; Brit. Mus. Cat.; Roy. Soc. Cat.]

B. B. W.