Hamilton, William (1755-1797) (DNB00)

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HAMILTON, WILLIAM (1755–1797), naturalist and antiquary, was born at Londonderry on 16 Dec. 1755. His father, John Hamilton, was a merchant, and his grandfather, who appears to have been a soldier of fortune, took part in the defence of Derry in 1689. The family was of Scottish descent, and claimed relationship with the Dukes of Hamilton. Entering Trinity College, Dublin, on 1 Nov. 1771, and graduating B.A. on 20 Feb. 1776, Hamilton was elected fellow on 31 May 1779, and proceeded to the degree of M.A. on 13 July 1779. Besides showing great interest in antiquities, he studied chemistry, mineralogy, and latterly meteorology. He assisted in founding a learned society, the ' Palseosophers,' which, when fused with another similar body, the 'Neosophers,' formed the nucleus of the Royal Irish Academy, to whose 'Transactions' he contributed various papers, e.g. 'Account of Experiments for determining the Temperature of the Earth's Surface,' 1788. Hamilton's principal literary work was the octavo 'Letters concerning the Northern Coast of Antrim, containing a Natural History of its Basaltes [sic], with Account of the Antiquities, Manners, and Customs of that Country' (London, 1786). This book is said to have attracted much attention at the time. A German translation by L. Crelle was published in the following year at Leipzig. It consists of two parts, the first giving the author's observations and reflections in a pleasant, scholarly manner, and the second setting forth his mineralogical conclusions with 'a plain and impartial view of the volcanic theory' of the basaltic rocks. Hamilton also wrote: 1. 'Letters on the Principles of the French Democracy and their . . . influence on . . . Britain and Ireland,' Dublin, 1722. 2. 'Account of Experiments to determine the Temperature of the Earth's Surface in Ireland' (Trans. Royal Irish Acad. 1788, ii.) 3. 'Memoir on the Climate of Ireland ' (ib. 1794, vi.)

In 1790 he was appointed rector of Clondavaddog or Faust, co. Donegal, a remote parish near Lough Swilly, and as a magistrate and clergyman of the established church became extremely obnoxious to many of his neighbours, from the resolute support which he gave to the government. His parsonage being unsuccessfully attacked near the beginning of February 1797, Hamilton had to procure a guard of soldiers, and went in constant fear of his life. At last he ventured to cross Lough Swilly, and when about to return found the ferry-boat delayed on account of the rough weather. He called on Dr. Waller, a friend who lived at Sharon close by, and when the darkness had set in found the house besieged by a crowd of 'armed banditti' who were clamorous for his death. Mrs. Waller was mortally wounded by a shot fired through the window, and, terrified apparently by the threats of fire and death, Dr. Waller's servants actually thrust forth the unfortunate Hamilton, and he was instantly murdered at the doorstep, where his body lay till morning. This event occurred on 2 March 1797, according to the epitaph on his tomb in Londonderry Cathedral, which further states that he was in his fortieth year. He must, however, have been in his forty-second year. He left a wife and nine children, who were provided for by a vote of the House of Commons.

[Memoir prefixed to a Belfast edition of the Letters published in 1822; private information; Webb's Compendium of Irish Biog. p. 242; Gent. Mag. 1797, pt. i. 180-1, 256; Watt's Bibl. Brit.; Brit. Mus. Cat.]

R. E. A.