Gibraltar Governor Robert Wilson (Sir Robert Thomas Wilson), (1777-1849), army officer and colonial governor, was born on 17 August 1777 in Great Russell Street, Bloomsbury, London, the fourth child and third son of the portrait painter Benjamin Wilson (bap. 1721, d. 1788) and his wife, Jane, nee Hetherington.
Education, and war in Europe, 1786-1799
Wilson was educated at Westminster School, London (1786-7), and also under Dr Joseph Warton at Winchester College (1787-8). In 1793, after the death of his father and mother, his elder sister Mrs Frances Bosville assisted him in obtaining a commission in the army. He joined the duke of York in the following year at Courtrai with a letter of recommendation from George III and was at once enrolled as a cornet of the 15th King’s light dragoons.
Wilson took part in the storming and capture of Premont on 17 April 1794 and the action of the 18th. On the 24th he was one of eight officers with the two squadrons of the 15th King’s light dragoons who, with two squadrons of Leopold’s hussars-altogether fewer than 300 sabres-attacked and routed a very superior French force at Villers-en-Cauchies. This action certainly contributed to the security of the Austrian emperor Francis II, who was travelling in the vicinity and came to believe that it had saved him from capture. The results of this magnificent charge, undertaken with the full knowledge of the risk, were 1200 of the enemy killed and wounded, three pieces of cannon captured, and the withdrawal of all French posts from the Selle, with the consequent safety of the emperor. Wilson’s horse was wounded under him. Four years later the emperor awarded special gold medals to the eight British officers of the 15th King’s light dragoons, and George III permitted them to be worn. In 1800 Francis II conferred upon the same officers the cross of the order of Maria Theresa, which George III permitted them to accept, with the rank of baron of the Holy Roman empire and of knighthood attached.
Two days after the routing at Villers-en-Cauchies, Wilson was engaged with his regiment in the action at Cateau (26 April). He also took part in the battle of Tournai (or the Marque) on 10 May; in the capture of Lannoy, Roubaix, and Mouveaux on the 17th; in the disastrous retreat on the 18th to Templeuve, when he commanded the rearguard, and when the light cavalry, according to an eyewitness, ‘performed wonders of valour’; at the battle of Pont a Chin on 22 May; and at the action of Duffel on 16 July. He greatly distinguished himself in September at Boxtel-on-the-Dommel, when, with Captain Calcraft and the patrol, he penetrated to the French headquarters and captured an aide-de-camp of General Vandamme and two gendarmes. They mounted the captives on the general’s horses and, although a regiment of red hussars and a regiment of dragoons pursued for 6 miles by separate roads to cut them off, they escaped. On the same evening they cut to pieces a party of French infantry. After the British army retreated into Germany, Wilson returned to England at the end of 1795 and joined the depot at Croydon in February 1796.
Wilson was promoted lieutenant, by purchase, on 31 October 1794, and on 21 September 1796 he purchased his troop. In 1797 he married Jemima Belford (1777-1823), daughter of Colonel William Belford of Harbledown, Kent, eldest son of General William Belford, Royal Artillery. Rich, beautiful, and well-connected, she was coheir with her sister, Mrs Christopher Carleton, of their uncle, Sir Adam Williamson. Both Wilson and Jemima Belford were wards in chancery and under age, and the marriage ceremony, with the consent of both families, took place on 8 July 1797 at Gretna Green, Scotland, and again on 10 March 1798 at St George’s, Hanover Square, London. The couple had seven sons and six daughters. Among their children was Sir Belford Hinton Wilson.
In May 1798 Wilson accompanied Major-General St John to Ireland and served as brigade major on his staff, and afterwards as aide-de-camp during the rising of 1798. He rejoined his regiment in 1799 and accompanied it to The Helder. In this campaign the 15th King’s light dragoons were greatly distinguished at Egmont-op-Zee on 2 October. He also took part in the actions of 6 and 10 October and returned with the regiment to England in November.
Egypt and after, 1800-1804
On 28 June 1800 Wilson purchased a majority in Hompesch’s mounted riflemen, then serving under Sir Ralph Abercromby in the Mediterranean, and in the autumn he travelled across the continent to Vienna on a mission to Lord Minto, by whom he was sent to the Austrian army in Italy. Having communicated with General Bellegarde and Lord William Bentinck, he went to join Abercromby. He landed at Abu Qir Bay on 7 March 1801, and took part in the action of the 13th and in the battle of Alexandria on the 21st. Upon Abercromby’s death Major-General (later Lord) Hutchinson succeeded him and employed Wilson on several missions. In July Wilson entered Cairo with Hutchinson, and was at the siege of Alexandria in August and its capitulation on the 25th. He left Egypt on 11 September and returned to England via Malta and Toulon, arriving at the end of December. For his services in Egypt he was made a knight of the order of the Crescent of Turkey.
In 1802 Wilson published The History of the British Expedition to Egypt, which went through several editions. The work derived especial popularity from its charges of cruelty against Napoleon, towards both his prisoners at Jaffa and his own soldiers at Cairo. Napoleon complained to the British government and, receiving no satisfaction, ordered Colonel Sebastiani to issue a counter-report. At this time Wilson was appointed inspecting field officer in Somerset and Devon under General Simcoe.
In 1804 Wilson published an Inquiry into the present state of the military force of the British empire with a view to its reorganization, in which he made his first public protest against corporal punishment in the army: Sir Francis Burdett wrote complimenting him on this.
South Africa, 1806
Wilson purchased a lieutenant-colonelcy in the 19th light dragoons in August 1804, and on 7 March 1805 exchanged into the 20th light dragoons. He sailed with 230 of them in the expedition under Sir David Baird and Sir Home Popham on 27 August from Cork harbour for the Cape of Good Hope and, after a voyage to Brazil where he purchased horses for the cavalry and had a narrow escape from a shipwreck, disembarked with General Beresford on 7 January 1806 in Saldanha Bay, Cape of Good Hope, as an advance guard. After the battle of Blaauwberg, which took place just before his arrival, Wilson commanded the cavalry on outpost duty until the terms of the capitulation were settled, and received arms, colours, guns, and horses at Simon’s Bay until General Janssen and the Dutch troops were deported in February. In June he obtained leave of absence and returned to England in the Adamant, but was nearly lost at sea in passing from one ship to another of the fleet.
War and diplomacy in Europe, 1806-1814
On 3 November 1806 Wilson was serving on the staff of Lord Hutchinson and went with him on a special mission to the Prussian court. They encountered a storm off the Anhalt shore and, in what was a leitmotif of Wilson’s travels, were nearly wrecked. He accompanied Lord Hutchinson and Friedrich Wilhelm III, the king of Prussia, to Memel in January 1807, and in February joined General Beningsen at the Russian headquarters of the army at Jarnova. He was present at the battle of Eylau on the 7th and 8th and accompanied the headquarters to Heilsberg in March, and in April to Bartenstein, where on the 26th Alexander I, the tsar of Russia, bestowed upon him the cross of St George for his services at Eylau. Wilson took part in the campaign of June, was present at the action of the Passarge on the 5th, at the battle of Heilsberg on the 10th, and the battle of Friedland on the 14th, after which he retreated with the army to Tilsit.
On the conclusion of the treaty of Tilsit, Wilson went to St Petersburg, and thence to England with dispatches, arriving on 19 September. On 2 October he left England with a confidential communication from Canning to the tsar, and arrived at St Petersburg on the 20th. He left again on 8 November with dispatches from Lord Granville to Canning, containing intelligence which Wilson had himself been the first to procure, that the tsar was about to invade Swedish Finland and declare war on Britain. Although a Russian courier had preceded him by thirty-six hours (his passport having been withheld to give the courier the advantage), Wilson pushed from Abo across the Gulf of Bothnia during very bad weather, reached Stockholm before the courier, and arranged that the courier should be delayed. He sailed for England, and at four o’clock in the morning of 2 December saw Canning in bed. He was directed to keep quiet until Canning’s orders to the naval authorities at Portsmouth had been implemented. On his return to breakfast with Canning the following morning he was complimented on his activity, which had resulted in the seizure of the Russian frigate Sperknoy, with money to pay the Russian fleet, while a fast vessel had been dispatched to Sir Sidney Smith to intercept the Russian fleet.
In 1808 Wilson was given command of the Loyal Lusitanian Legion, raised from Portuguese refugees in England under British officers, and in August went to Portugal as a brigadier-general in the Portuguese army. He was the first to demonstrate that the Portuguese recruits could be trained and organized into good fighting units. He was engaged in various actions in Castile and Estremadura during the retreat of the British to Corunna in 1808-9. After the battle of Corunna on 16 January 1809, acting in conjunction with the Spaniards beyond the Agueda, he kept open the communications with Ciudad Rodrigo and Almeida and held the enemy in check. He had much desultory fighting, took part in the pursuit of Marshal Soult, and with the Lusitanian legion and 3000 Spaniards advanced to within 9 miles of Madrid. After the battle of Talavera on 27 and 28 July Wilson found himself at Escalona, cut off by the enemy from Arzobispo; he crossed the Tietar, scrambled over the mountains, and with difficulty gained the pass of Banos on 8 August as Marshal Ney’s corps was approaching on its march from Plasencia to the north. He endeavoured to delay its advance and vigorously defended the pass for some hours, but was eventually dislodged, and he retreated to Castelo Branco.
When the British army went into winter quarters Wilson returned home and, as the Lusitanian legion was absorbed in the new organization of the Portuguese army, offered himself on 6 May 1810 to Lord Wellesley for special service. For his services in the Peninsula he was promoted on 25 July colonel in the army and appointed aide-de-camp to the king, and in 1811 was made a knight commander of the Portuguese order of the Tower and Sword. In that year he published Brief remarks on the character and composition of the Russian army, and a sketch of the campaign in Poland in 1806 and 1807. He drew up a memorandum of his thoughts on the Peninsular campaigns of 1810 and 1811 which do not demonstrate great insight on some of the issues. In the autumn of 1811 his offer of service was accepted, and on 26 March 1812 he was given the local rank of brigadier-general in the British army and accompanied Sir Robert Liston, the newly appointed ambassador to the Porte, to Constantinople with instructions to assist the negotiations for peace between Turkey and Russia. He arrived at Constantinople on 1 July, and on 27 July went on a mission from Liston to the grand vizier at Shumla, to the Russian admiral Chichagov commanding the Danube army corps at Bucharest, and finally to the tsar at St Petersburg. He reached the headquarters of the Russian army under Barclay de Tolly in time to take part in the battle of Smolensk on 16 August. He arrived in St Petersburg on the 27th and had an audience with the tsar on 4 September. Having satisfactorily completed his mission, he proceeded on the 15th, accompanied by his aide-de-camp Baron Brinken and by Lord Tyrconnel, to join the Russian army at Krasnoi Pakra, near Moscow, as British commissioner, with instructions to keep both Lord Cathcart and Liston informed.
Wilson took part in the successful attack on Murat at Winkowo on 18 October, in the battles of Malo-Jaroslawitz on the 24th, of Wiasma on 3 November, of Krasnoi on 17 November, and in all the actions to the cessation of the pursuit of the French. He exchanged into the 22nd light dragoons on 10 December 1812. Early in 1813 he marched across Poland to Kalisz, and thence to Berlin, where he arrived on 31 March. On 8 April he went via Dessau and Leipzig to Dresden. On 2 May he played a prominent part in the battle of Lutzen, where, aided by Colonel Campbell, he rallied the Prussians, carried the village of Gros Gorschen, which he held until night, and subsequently drove the enemy back on Lutzen. He further distinguished himself at the battle of Bautzen on 20 and 21 May, and at the action of Reichenbach on the 22nd. During a review of the troops near Jauer on the 27th the tsar decorated Wilson with the cross of the knight commander of the order of St George, taking it from his own neck and making a most complimentary speech.
Wilson was promoted major-general on 4 June 1813. During the armistice he travelled about the country inspecting the fortresses. When Austria joined the alliance against Napoleon and hostilities were resumed, Wilson was conspicuous in the attack upon Dresden on 26 August, when he took part in storming the grand redoubt, and was the first to mount the parapet, followed by Captain Charles. On this occasion he lost his cross of the order of Maria Theresa in the melee, and the emperor of Austria presented him with another. In the battle of 27 August Wilson was with the tsar and General Moreau when the latter was mortally wounded. He was also at the battles of Kulm and Kraupen on the 29th and 30th, and charged repeatedly with the Austrian cavalry on the 30th.
On 7 September Wilson joined the Austrian army at Leitmeritz as British commissioner, having been transferred from the Russian army. On the 27th he received from the king of Prussia the grand cross of the order of the Red Eagle, of which he had previously received the fourth class. He was with the staff of Marshal Prince Schwartzenberg, commander of the allied armies, at the battles of Leipzig on 16 and 18 October, and at the capture of the city on the 19th. Schwartzenberg wrote to Lord Aberdeen, the British ambassador, attributing the success at Leipzig on the 16th chiefly to Wilson’s intelligence and able dispositions.
Shortly after the battles of Leipzig, Lord Castlereagh appointed Lord Burghersh to be British commissioner with Schwartzenberg, and transferred Wilson to the Austrian army in Italy. The tsar, the emperor of Austria, and the king of Prussia wanted to retain Wilson with them. On 11 November 1813 Aberdeen wrote to Castlereagh: ‘From his intimate knowledge of the Russian and Prussian armies, and the great respect invariably shown him by the emperor of Russia and the king of Prussia, he is able to do a thousand things which no one else could do’. Castlereagh, however, refused: he observed that if Wilson had the confidence of all other governments he lacked that of his own. Although party politics was a factor in the government’s treatment of Wilson, he was considered to be too much the freelance or, in the words of the duke of Wellington, ‘a very slippery fellow’. He was efficient and fearless as an independent commander but careless at carrying out orders. Yet his bravery and ability to influence others around him, as well as his charm, were exceptional. Nevertheless, although loaded with distinctions by allied foreign sovereigns, he received none from his own.
On 22 December 1813 Wilson, on Aberdeen’s orders, went to Basel to join the allied commission, but on the 25th his instructions arrived from Castlereagh to join the Austrian army in Italy and to report direct to him, keeping the British ambassador to Austria informed. Before leaving, the tsar presented him with the first class or grand cross of the order of St Anne at Freiburg on 24 December, and the emperor of Austria promoted him knight commander of the order of Maria Theresa on 4 January 1814. He joined Marshal Bellegarde at Vicenza on 12 January, accompanied him in the occupation of Verona early in February, and was present on the 8th at the battle of Valeggio, where he greatly distinguished himself and was nearly captured by the French. On the 10th he was present at the action on the right bank of the River Mincio. On 28 March he went to Bologna, where he met Lord William Bentinck and Murat, with whom he opened negotiations. The abdication of Napoleon put an end to his mission, and in June he left Italy for Paris.
French escapade, 1816-1817
On 10 January 1816 Wilson was instrumental, in conjunction with Michael Bruce and Captain John Hely-Hutchinson (later third earl of Donoughmore), in the escape from Paris of Count Lavallette, who, condemned to death, had escaped from prison by putting on his wife’s clothes. Wilson passed the barriers in a cabriolet with Lavallette disguised as a British officer and conveyed him safely to Mons. He sent a narrative of the adventure to Earl Grey (reprinted in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1816), which was intercepted. He was arrested in Paris on 13 January. The three Englishmen were tried in Paris on 2 April and sentenced on the 24th to three months’ imprisonment. On 10 May a general order was issued by the duke of York, commander-in-chief, expressing the prince regent’s high displeasure at the conduct of Wilson and Hutchinson.
In 1817 Wilson published A Sketch of the Military and Political Power of Russia, which went through several editions and was attacked in the Quarterly Review (of September 1818).
Reform politics, 1818-1831
In politics Wilson was a reformer, a relatively radical whig who during his military career kept links with Grey, the whig leader. In 1818 he was elected MP for Southwark, with its large electorate, defeating Charles Barclay, the brewer, and on this occasion he replied to the attack of the Quarterly Review in A letter to his constituents in refutation of a charge for despatching a false report of a victory to the commander-in-chief of the British army in the Peninsula in 1809. As an MP he spoke on various radical issues and attempted to reconcile whigs and radicals, but he was considered unreliable by other opposition MPs. He supported parliamentary reform and opposed the government’s repressive legislation. In 1819 he seconded Burdett’s motion on the Manchester petition against the conduct of the magistrates at Peterloo. In 1820 he was again elected for Southwark, having defeated Sir Thomas Turton.
Queen Caroline, who had been friendly to Wilson and to whom his eldest son was equerry, died on 7 August 1821. Wilson attended the funeral on the 14th, at which time an encounter took place between the Household Cavalry and the crowd at Cumberland Gate, Hyde Park. Shots were fired, and Wilson interposed to prevent bloodshed, an act which was perceived as interference with the prerogatives of the authorities. He was peremptorily dismissed from the army on 15 September without any reason being assigned or any opportunity of explanation afforded. Having purchased all but his first commission, he lost much money, and a subscription was raised to compensate him. On 13 February 1822 Wilson moved in parliament for papers concerning his dismissal and in a long and able speech vindicated his action and called in question the prerogative of the crown to dismiss any officer without cause. The government, confining themselves to the questions of prerogative, easily defeated the motion. In 1823 Wilson went to Spain to take part in the war, first in Galicia and then at Cadiz. He was again elected for Southwark in 1826, when the poll lasted six days, and he defeated Edward Polhill. He made a speech in the House of Commons on 12 December on the policy of aiding Portugal when invaded by Spain, which was published separately. He was an active politician and took a prominent part in the formation of the Canning ministry. He was again elected for Southwark in 1830. On the accession of William IV, Wilson was reinstated in the army with the rank of lieutenant-general, to date from 27 May 1825. When the Reform Bill was introduced in the House of Commons on 1 March 1831, Wilson voted for the second reading but spoke without voting in favour of Gascoigne’s amendment opposing the reduction of the number of members for England and Wales which was carried against the government. His lack of enthusiasm for the Reform Bill discredited him with his former supporters. He did not seek re-election after the dissolution of April 1831. He finally regarded the measure as ‘the initiatory measure of a republican form of government’. By his attitude he lost for a time the colonelcy of a regiment.
Last years, 1835-1849
On 29 December 1835 Wilson was appointed colonel of his old regiment, the 15th hussars. On 23 November 1841 he was promoted general, and in 1842 he was appointed governor and commander-in-chief at Gibraltar. He had only recently returned home when he died suddenly on 9 May 1849 at Marshall Thompson’s Hotel, Oxford Street, London. He was buried on 15 May beside his wife in the north aisle near the west entrance of Westminster Abbey, and a memorial, next to the grave of the surgeon and anatomist John Hunter, was erected at the vault.
Wilson’s writings include The History of the British Expedition to Egypt (1802); Narrative of events during the invasion of Russia by Napoleon Bonaparte and the retreat of the French army, 1812, edited by Wilson’s nephew and son-in-law the Revd Herbert Randolph (1860) (the introduction gives a brief memoir of Wilson up to 1814); Private diary of travels, personal services, and public events during missions and employment with the European armies in the campaigns of 1812, 1813, and 1814, also edited by Randolph (2 vols., 1861); and Life from Autobiographical Memoirs, Journals, Narratives, Correspondence, …, edited by Randolph (2 vols., 1863), a work which was never completed and which stops at the end of 1807.
R. H. Vetch
Gordon L. Teffeteller
Sources M. Glover, ‘A very slippery fellow’: the life of Sir Robert Wilson, 1777-1849 (1978) + I. Samuel, An astonishing fellow: the life of General Sir Robert Wilson (1985) + G. Costigan, Sir Robert Wilson: a soldier of fortune in the Napoleonic Wars (1932) + S. G. P. Ward, ‘The Portuguese infantry brigade, 1809-1814’, Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research, 53 (1975) + Fortescue, Brit. army + C. W. C. Oman, A history of the Peninsular War, 7 vols. (1902-30) + G. L. Teffeteller, The surpriser: the life of Rowland, Lord Hill (1983) + D. Gates, The Spanish ulcer: a history of the Peninsular War (1986) + HoP, Commons, 1790-1820
Archives BL, corresp. and papers, Add. MSS 30095-30144, 30147-30148 | BL, corresp. with Lord Aberdeen, Add. MSS 43243-43245 + BL, corresp. with Sir James Willoughby Gordon, Add. MS 49497 + BL, corresp. with Sir John Hobhouse, Add. MSS 36457-36467 + BL, corresp. with Lord Holland, Add. MS 51617 + BL, corresp. with Sir Robert Peel, Add. MSS 40396-40514 + Lpool RO, letters to Lord Stanley + NAM, corresp. with Sir Benjamin D’Urban + NRA, corresp. with first earl of Durham + PRONI, corresp. with Lord Castlereagh + Suffolk RO, Ipswich, corresp. with Mrs M. C. Greenup + U. Durham L., corresp. with second Earl Grey + U. Nott. L., corresp. with Lord William Bentinck + U. Southampton L., letters to first duke of Wellington
Likenesses W. Ward, engraving, pubd 1819 (after H. W. Pickersgill, exh. RA 1819), NPG [see illus.] · R. Dighton, etching, pubd 1821 (after his earlier portrait), BM, NPG · stipple, pubd 1827 (after unknown artist), NPG