George Samuel Sale was born at Rugby, Warwickshire, England, probably in 1831, and baptised on 17 May that year. He was the third son of Mary Anne Hewitt and her husband, John Shaw Sale, writing master at Rugby School under Thomas Arnold. George entered Rugby School in 1839, and his education was firmly based on Arnold's ideals of moral principle, gentlemanly conduct and intellectual achievement. In 1850 Sale proceeded to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he graduated BA in 1854 (with first-class honours in Classics and second-class in mathematics) and MA in 1857. In 1856 he was elected a fellow of Trinity, and he remained at Cambridge for another four years, holding the positions of assistant tutor and sub-lecturer in the college.
In 1860 Sale decided to emigrate to New Zealand, leaving on the Minerva in November 1860 and arriving at Lyttelton in February 1861. This decision was influenced by health problems, but other reasons may be inferred: on arrival he and his companions, delighted with the prospect of the untrammelled life before them, lit a huge bonfire and burned their top-hats and tail-coats as a gesture of contempt for the conventions they had left behind.
Sale soon found employment as manager of Lake Coleridge station in Canterbury. Visitors to his hut found 'a tall, well-built man, in very rough clothes, which do not disguise the fact that sheepfarming was not his original vocation'; a row of Greek and Latin classics stood on his bookshelf. Sale formed a firm friendship with William Rolleston, a fellow Cambridge classicist, who owned the neighbouring Rakaia Forks station.
After only three months at Lake Coleridge Sale was invited, in May 1861, to become the first editor of the Christchurch Press, to which he contributed elegant and well-informed articles on European affairs. In December his sense of adventure led him to resign to join the Otago goldrush at Blue Spur near Lawrence.
After nine months as a goldminer Sale returned to Christchurch, and in June 1864 was appointed Canterbury provincial treasurer; this was on the nomination of Rolleston, by now provincial secretary. In 1865 gold was discovered on the West Coast, and Sale was sent there in April by the provincial government as commissioner at the West Canterbury goldfields, again at Rolleston's instigation.
It was a considerable task to establish an orderly community among the mining population. Sale was given almost autocratic powers, which earned him the nickname 'King' Sale; at the same time he was noted for his accessibility, and on one occasion is said to have received a deputation in a tub in his tent. But inevitably he made enemies, among them the proprietor of the West Coast Times, and his task was made more difficult by a reduction in the funds available for necessary projects on the coast.
Even Sale's enemies had to recognise his energy, his administrative ability, and above all his integrity. When Westland was separated from Canterbury in 1868, Sale became county secretary as well as chief commissioner for waste lands; and, when the secretary's position disappeared in the 1868 reorganisation, the Hokitika community showed their confidence in him by electing him as one of their representatives on the Westland County Council.
After only one session on the council, where he sat on a number of committees and generally played an active role, Sale returned to England for family reasons (his father was to die in June 1869), and in November 1870 he entered Lincoln's Inn with the intention of being called to the Bar. Meanwhile, the newly founded University of Otago advertised for its first professors, and Sale was selected from a list of 62 applicants for the chair of Classics and English language and literature. He arrived back in New Zealand in June 1871, in time for the official opening of the university on 5 July.
Sale held the chair of Classics until his retirement in 1908, relinquishing English language and literature on the creation of a separate chair in 1877. He had an immense influence on the development of university education in New Zealand. He was a long-serving member of the University of Otago's Professorial Board and Council, he sat on the royal commission of 1878–80 on universities and schools, and he was a member of the senate of the University of New Zealand from 1877 to 1908. The regulations which Sale drafted for the University of Otago and subsequently for the University of New Zealand remained in force with only minor modification until his retirement.
A concern for the highest standards is evident both in the causes for which Sale fought and in reports of his teaching. Among the former were his opposition to the affiliation of secondary schools to the University of New Zealand, his concern for the level of the matriculation examination, and his insistence that university examination scripts should be marked by examiners in Britain. His teaching was informed by a belief both in the civilising effect of a classical education and in the benefits of a close study of the classical languages and literatures. He demanded high standards of his students and had little patience with those who lacked elementary competence. His great love was Latin literature, especially Lucretius, although his published articles reveal an interest in the subtleties of language, both Greek and Latin.
Sale was a keen sportsman, representing Canterbury at cricket in 1864 and 1865 and playing a major role in the development of both cricket and rugby at the University of Otago. He was also a talented musician with a good bass voice, and at one stage conducted his own choir at Sawyers Bay. On 9 June 1874 he married Margaret Maria Fortune at Kaitangata. They had two sons and two daughters. After his retirement he returned to England, and died in London on 25 December 1922 in his 92nd year after a long illness. Margaret Sale died on 2 May 1933 at Poole, Dorset, aged 81.