He was born at Clapham, and articled to a civil engineer, working for two years in a factory near Glasgow. In 1841 and 1845 he was employed in the West Indies, erecting lighthouses in Jamaica and Bermuda. In 1849 he became secretary to the Society of Arts, and in 1852 to the Crystal Palace. In this capacity his natural love of music and enthusiasm for the art found a splendid opening, and he threw all the weight of his influence into the task of promoting the best music of all kinds in connexion with the weekly and daily concerts at Sydenham, which had a long and honourable career under the direction of conductor August Manns.
Without Sir George Grove, Manns would hardly have succeeded in encouraging young composers and educating the British public about music. Grove's analyses of the Beethoven symphonies, and the other works presented at the concerts, set the pattern of what such things should be; and it was as a result of these, and of the fact that he was editor of Macmillan's Magazine from 1868 to 1883, that the scheme of his famous Dictionary of Music and Musicians, published from 1878 to 1880, was conceived and executed. His own articles on Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Schubert are monuments of a special kind of learning, even though the rest of the book is a little thrown out of balance owing to their great length.
Long before this, Grove had contributed to the Dictionary of the Bible, and had promoted the foundation of the Palestine Exploration Fund. On a journey to Vienna, undertaken in the company of his lifelong friend, Sir Arthur Sullivan, the important discovery of a large number of compositions by Schubert was made, including the music to Rosamunde. When the Royal College of Music was founded in 1882 he was appointed its first director, receiving a knighthood. He brought the new institution into line with the most useful European conservatoriums. On the completion of the new buildings in 1894 he resigned the directorship, but retained an active interest in the institution to the end of his life. He died at Sydenham.
His biography was written by Charles Graves.