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William Denison

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Lieutenant-General Sir William Denison, KCB, (1804-1871)

1872 Obituary [1]

LIEUTENANT-GENERAL SIR WILLIAM DENISON, K.C.B., was the third son of the late John Denison, Esq., of Ossington, in the county of Notts, and was born at his father’s house in London, on the 3rd of May, 1804.

After being under education at Eton for four years, he was removed thence at the comparatively early age of fourteen, in order to enter on a course of more special training for his future profession. He attained a good place at Eton in proportion to his age; but this he always declared was more owing to the excellent training he received at home, and from his private tutor (the Rev. C. Drury), than to any great exertion of his own. His account of himself during those early years is, that at that time he had no particular aptitude or inclination for study, and did no more than he was obliged to do.

When he was about fifteen, however, the study of mathematics, hitherto a mere task, began really to engage his attention : his mind, as he described it in after-life, seemed to open to the results of such study, which, thenceforth, became a favourite pursuit with him, and a line of study which he earnestly recommended in after-years to other young men. He entered the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich in February, 1819, and passed the examination for a commission in December, 1823 ; but, as no commissions were at that time given in the Royal Engineers, and he preferred waiting for one to joining any other branch of the army, he was not gazetted as a second-lieutenant till March, 1826.

In the spring of the following year he was ordered to Canada, where, for the next four or five years, he was employed, with a company of Sappers, in the construction of the Rideau canal, which had then just been commenced. Accounts of this work, including the Hog's-back dam across the Rideau river, may be found in the "Professional Papers of the Corps of Royal Engineers" - a publication which was suggested by him, which was mainly established by his exertions, and which he continued to conduct as editor, from the appearance of the first volume in 1837, till he left England for Van Diemen's Land in 1846. The value of the service thus rendered to his corps is fully understood by his brother officers ; and their appreciation of it may be seen in the maintenance of the publication,-a volume having been published annually ever since.

It was during these years in Canada that his connection with the Institution of Civil Engineers may be said to have commenced ; for, in the intervals of his other duties, he, in the years 1830 and 1831, made a series of experiments on the strength of various kinds of American timber, principally undertaken with a view of establishing some common standard of comparison between the woods in general use in England and in America.

The results of these experiments were communicated to the Institution in 1837, in which year he was elected an Associate ; and a Telford Medal was awarded to him for this communication, which the Council, in their Report for 1839, referred to as an example to other military engineers, of the valuable services which their opportunities would enable them to render to Civil Engineers.

His return to England at the end of the year 1831 put a stop to these experiments, and prevented the carrying out of others on a larger scale.

He was then for several months stationed at Woolwich; and this was the only portion of his life during which he was occupied with the purely military duties of his profession. He was always selected for some special service, and these duties were very various. It was an axiom of his that an officer of Engineers should be fit for work of any kind ; and his own career was a remarkable illustration of this principle. With the exception of the Foreign Office, there is hardly a single department of the Government under which his services have not been engaged. It should be mentioned, also, that all these varied employments came to him unsought. Two disappointments in early life - in not obtaining posts which he had desired, led him to form a resolution that he would never again ask for any appointment, but would take what was offered to him. He was wont to say that the resolution originated in something of mortified pride, but it was certainly persevered in afterwards on a higher principle-that of a belief that it is best to leave the ordering of our lot in life to a higher and wiser Hand than our own.

In February, 1833, he was ordered to Chatham, to undertake the duties of instructor in surveying to the cadets about to obtain commissions in the corps of Royal Engineers. He continued at this post till the summer of 1835, when he was appointed a member of the Corporation Boundary Commission ; and after the completion of that duty, in 1836, was employed for a short time in making observations with Ramsden’s zenith sector, and in comparing it with the mural circles of the Royal Observatory, at Greenwich. In the autumn of 1837 he was placed in charge of the engineering works in progress at Woolwich Dockyard- Captain Brandreth R.E., being at that time the Director of Works to the Admiralty; and he continued for the next eight years in the employment of the Admiralty, superintending the works first at Woolwich ; in the summer of 1842 being sent to inspect the Admiralty Works at Bermuda; and in June, 1845, he was transferred to the Portsmouth Dockyard. While at the former place, he also furnished the plans for, and superintended the construction of, the new barracks for the Royal Marines ; and, in the intervals of these avocations, found time the for work as a member of another Government Commission on the Health of Towns.

In 1838, he served as an Associate-Member of the Council of the Institution of Civil Engineers - he and the late Mr. W. Carpmael being the first representatives of that class on the Council.

In the spring of 1846, much difficulty having arisen in the management of the large convict establishment in Van Diemen’s Land, the Secretary of State for the Colonies (the Right Hon. W. E. Gladstone, M.P.) applied to Sir John Burgoyne, the Inspector- General of Fortifications, to select an officer of talent and energy from the corps of Royal Engineers, for the important post of Governor of that colony. Captain Denison was specially recommended for the service, was accordingly appointed, and at the request of Lord Auckland, the First Lord of the Admiralty received the honour of knighthood. He left England in October of that year, and arrived at his new post on the 25th January, 1847.

From henceforward his duties may be said to have been political and social, rather than professional ; but still his engineering knowledge, and the experience acquired during his previous career, proved highly useful, in a variety of ways, both to himself and others. It enabled him to suggest and originate many useful works; besides which, the Engineer Governor was soon found to be a valuable referee; and his opinion and advice were frequently asked, and always readily given,-now as to the foundations of a church,-now as to the drainage of a town.

Towards the close of 1854 he was appointed Governor of New South Wales, which post he held for the next six years. Here, as in Van Diemen’s Land, the period of his government was marked by important political changes. In both he had to inaugurate and watch over some of the first phases of representative institutions and responsible government ; and in Van Diemen’s Land he had, for a time, to encounter considerable difficulties, arising from the opposition in the colony to what was at that time the policy of the Home Government with respect to the transportation of convicts.

In November, 1860, Sir William Denison was informed that he had been appointed to the Governorship of Madras; and he was directed to proceed thither as speedily as possible, and told that he would find his commission awaiting him there. Accordingly, he made his arrangements for the change with all possible despatch, - arrived at Madras, and was sworn in on the 18th February, 1861.

There he found the Government st,ill in a sort of transition state, consequent on the recent transfer of authority from the East India Company to the Crown: much was still unsettled relative to the details of the Government in the different Presidencies, and the relations of these to the Supreme Government at Calcutta. The subject of the reorganization of the native army, too, was just. beginning to occupy attention ; and all these unsettled questions added much to the amount of occupation thrown upon him on his first arrival. He found leisure, however, for the conbidcrnt8ion of two engineering schemes which were soon pressed upon his attention, and which involved a visit to each locality. The first of these was for the improvement of the navigation of the river Godavery ; the second, for the formation of a harbour at Sedashegur, on the west coast of the Peninsula.

In November, 1863, he, was called upon, in consequence of the death of Lord Elgin, to assume temporarily the office of Governor- General, until a new one could be appointed from home. This appeared likely to be no easy position : to say nothing of an accumulation of business, which had been necessarily left in abeyance during Lord Elgin’s illness, there was a war raging on the northwestern frontier, which had begun to assume a very unsatisfactory aspect. An expedition had been set on foot by the Lieutenant- Governor of the Punjab, and agreed to, somewhat unwillingly, by Lord Elgin, against the fanatical tribes inhabiting Sitana and the Mahabun Mountain ; but the march against these enemies, through a country little known had proved more difficult than was expected ; other hill-tribes, taking alarm at the approach of the British troops, made common cause with the ‘Sitana fanatics,’ and vigorously attacked our forces ; and at length 6he Government of the Punjab, taking alarm, had recommended, and the Council at Calcutta, partaking of the panic, had concurred in a recommendation, that our troops should be withdrawn to the plains-a virtual acknowledgment of defeat, which, in Sir W. Denison’s opinion, could not but hare a most injurious effect on the future tranquility of the frontier, and on the prestige of the British name.

It was no wonder, under these circumstances, that the congratulations of Sir William’s friends at Madras, on the splendour of his new position, were mingled with some expressions of fear lest he should suffer from the weight of toil and responsibility thus imposed upon him. His own remark on these expressed fears was characteristic: “I do not,” he observed to a member of his own family, “quite enter into what they say about my great responsibility. My responsibility is no greater than it always has been ;” and, on some surprise being expressed at these words, he added, “No! I was equally bound before to do my very best-and I can do no more now.” Simple words, but expressive of a truth which, if considered, would save many a mind from an almost overwhelming burden of anxiety-namely, that we are not answerable for the results of our work ; that our responsibility extends only to the carrying through of that work, be it what it may, with thorough integrity of purpose, and bringing to bear upon it the very utmost of our energy and ability. The principle here expressed was certainly well exemplified throughout Sir W. Denison’s career. Duty was duty to him ; and whether the task of the moment was the government of an empire or the construction of a plan, it was carried out with the same thoroughness of purpose-he felt “ equally bound to do his very best.” His ‘ best,’ on the present occasion, was blessed with eminent success.

His first effort on arriving at Calcutta was to induce the Council to rescind the order for the withdrawal of the troops, and to recommend, instead, a movement in advance. He succeeded in carrying this recommendation through the Council, though with considerable difficulty, and in the teeth of a protest from one of the members ; and the result of the bolder course advocated by him, and ably and gallantly carried out by Sir Hugh Rose (now Lord Strathnairn), and the officers and troops under his command, was, that in three weeks’ time the war was at an end, every point in dispute gained, and the whole frontier tranquillised. Sir John (now Lord) Lawrence, the new Governor-General, who was sent from home with all possible speed, under the impression that his former experience in the Punjab and on the frontier rendered him the fittest man to deal with the emergency, found on his arrival - and acknowledged that he found-the work ready done to his hand.

Sir William Denison returned to Madras about the middle of January, 1864, and the remainder of his term of office there passed without any remarkable event ; but his affection for his old corps evinced itself strongly when, in the autumn of 1865, he was asked from the Horse Guards whether it was his intention to return to the active list of his corps or to retire, as the term of years during which he had been ‘seconded’ for special services had expired. “It was not his intention to retire,” he said.

He would sooner have given up his position at Madras, honourable and lucrative as that was ; and he wrote home accordingly, expressing his readiness to return at once to the duties of his corps, if ordered to do so ; but at the same time requesting that, unless his services were specially required, he might be allowed to remain to complete the regular term of office at Madras. This request was acceded to ; but he wrote to the Secretary of State for India, stating his wish to be relieved as soon as that period should have expired. Accordingly, his successor, Lord Kapier, arrived at Madras on the 27th March, 1866, and Sir William Denison, with his family, embarked on the following day for England. He remained for about ten days in Egypt by the way, occupied in examining the works, then in progress, of the Suez Canal; and a Paper by him on this great work was communicated to the Institution of Civil Engineers, and the Watt medal was awarded to him in consequence.

Sir William arrived in England on the 28th May, 1866, and about a year afterwards was offered the command of the Royal Engineers at Portsmouth. His hearty love of his profession made him gladly accept this offer; but his Royal Highness the Commander- in-Chief eventually expressed an opinion that it was not advisable for one who had held so much higher positions to accept such a comparatively small command, and the appointment did not take place. Sir William’s letter, in reply to this decision, addressed to the Inspector-General of Engineers, expresses in warm terms his affection for his old corps :-


"I am much obliged to you for allowing me to see his Royal Highness’s letter on the subject of my appointment as Commanding Royal Engineer at Portsmouth. I feel grateful to his Royal Highness for the testimony borne by him to the mode in which 1 have performed the duties incidental to the various positions in which I have been placed. I cannot but think, however, that the motives which have actuated me throughout my career have been misunderstood, and feelings alluded to as likely to arise out of the inferiority of my present position, or of my possible future one, to those which I have held, which neither have found, nor will find, a place in my mind.

"I have always had a strong corps feeling, and have ever considered my position as an officer of Engineers an honourable distinction. I have done my best to qualify myself for the various duties which, as an officer of Engineers, I might be called upon to perform ; and I have striven to incline my brother officers to take the same view as myself of the very varied character of their duties. How varied these have been in my own case you knew very well ; but the variety was not the result of any application on my part. The offer of employment, other than that of the ordinary duties of the corps, in every case came spontaneously from persons in authority ; and I accepted the offer, feeling myself competent to execute the works intrusted to me, and with a conviction that in so doing I was but acting up to my duty as an officer. I never looked upon the appointments I held as permanent; indeed €hey were essentially of a temporary character; and, though I have been moved from one government to another, I have always looked forward to the time when I could rejoin my corps, and, as a matter of course, reassume my military position. His Royal Highness is aware that in 1865, when the question was put to me whether I intended to resign my commission, I distinctly stated that such was not my intention, and that I held myself in readiness to obey any orders I might receive from his Royal Highness. I did not then, neither do I now, think that in reassuming my position as a Colonel of Engineers, after having acted as a Governor or Governor-General, I have in any way lost caste ; or that, in performing the duties incidental to an officer of my rank and standing I can be considered to be doing anything derogatory to myself.

"On the contrary, I feel that a refusal on my part to accept the realities of my position, and to perform my duties as an officer, would be equivalent to an admission that I was incapable or unfit to do so ; and this, most certainly, I am not in any way disposed to allow. My opinion is that, in returning was matter of course to my ordinary duties in the corps, I have but acted in accordance to a sense of duty, and as I should wish to see my brother officers do. That they appreciate my motives, and are glad to see me back amongst them, I have every reason to believe. Such being my feelings, and those of my brother officers, I, when asked by the Deputy Adjutant-General whether I would accept the command at Portsmouth, replied at once in the affirmative ; indeed I could not act otherwise; and I trust that his Royal Highness will admit that, under the circumstances, no option was left to me, and will appreciate my wish to resume my military duties.

"Believe me, Yours very truly, (Signed) W. DENISON."

In the spring of 1868 Sir William was appointed Chairman of a Royal Commission for inquiring into and recommending measures to prevent the pollution of rivers, by the various manufacturing and mining processes carried on in different parts of the country ; and in this occupation he continued actively engaged up to the time of his death. At the annual meeting of the Institution of Civil Engineers in December, 1868, Sir William Denison was again elected an Associate-Member of Council, and he served in that position during the following year. His leisure hours were partly occupied in plans for colonization, and other objects tending to promote the welfare of the professional and labouring classes; and some lectures which he had promised to give on those subjects were only prevented by his last and fatal illness.

A memoir like this is not the place in which to enlarge upon his inner and higher life ; yet none who really knew him would think any description complete without at least an allusion to the cheerfulness and happiness which he diffused around him in his home, the Christian example which he has left as the best of all legacies to his children, and the ever-brightening faith and hope which enabled him to remark that, “As one gets older, one gets happier;” and that “the glorious prospect beyond the grave looks brighter as it comes nearer.” Without some delineation of such marked features as these, no sketch of him could be recognised as a likeness.

His last illness was sudden and short; and he died at East Sheen, Surrey, on the 19th January, 1871.

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