Chesney, George Tomkyns (DNB01)

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CHESNEY, Sir GEORGE TOMKYNS (1830–1895), general, colonel-commandant royal (late Bengal) engineers, youngest of four sons of Captain Charles Cornwallis Chesney of the Bengal artillery (d. 1830), and brother of Colonel Charles Cornwallis Chesney [q. v.], and nephew of General Francis Rawdon Chesney [q. v.], was born at Tiverton, Devonshire, on 30 April 1830. He was educated at 'Blundell's' school at Tiverton, and was at first especially trained for the medical profession, but afterwards receiving an Indian cadetship he went to the military college of the East India Company at Addiscombe in February 1847, and obtained a commission as second lieutenant in the Bengal engineers on 8 Dec. 1848. His further commissions were dated: lieutenant 1 Aug. 1854, captain 27 Aug. 1858, brevet major 28 Aug. 1858, brevet lieutenant-colonel 14 June 1869, major 5 July 1872, lieutenant-colonel 1 April 1874, brevet colonel 1 Oct. 1877, colonel 10 Jan. 1884, major-general 10 March 1886, lieutenant-general 10 March 1887, colonel-commandant of royal engineers 28 March 1890, general 1 April 1892.

After the usual professional instruction at Chatham Chesney went to India, arriving at Calcutta in December 1860. He was employed in the public works department until the outbreak of the mutiny, when he joined the column from Ambala, took part, on 8 June 1857, in the battle of Badlike-Serai as field-engineer to Brigadier-general Showers, and in the capture of the ridge in front of Delhi. He was appointed brigade-major of royal engineers in the Delhi field-force. He was one of the four proposers of the coup-de-main on 11 June by seizing the Kabul and Lahore gates and driving the enemy out of the city into the fort. As staff-officer to Major (afterwards Colonel) Richard Baird Smith [q. v.], the chief engineer, he distinguished himself by his assiduity during the siege. He was very severely wounded at the assault of Delhi on 14 Sept. He was mentioned in despatches (London Gazette, 15 Dec. 1857), and received the medal with clasp and a brevet majority for his services.

On recovering from his wounds Chesney was posted to Calcutta, where he was made president of the engineering college and attracted attention by his ability, sound judgment, and literary power in dealing with public questions. In an article in the 'Calcutta Review' of 1859 he discussed the financial question in connection with public works, and shortly after he was selected to form a new department of accounts, of which he was appointed the head in 1860. In 1867 he went on furlough to England, and in 1868 published his work on 'Indian Polity: a View of the System of Administration in India,' a valuable and permanent text-book on the several departments of the government of India, which attracted wide notice. Most of the changes advocated have since been carried out. A second edition was published in 1870, and a third in 1894, when the work was practically rewritten.

About 1868 also he prepared the scheme which developed into the establishment of the Royal Indian Civil Engineering College at Cooper's Hill, Staines. He chose the site, selected the staff, and organised the course and standard of professional education, and when the college was opened in 1871 he had been recalled from India to be its first president. In this year he contributed anonymously to 'Blackwood's Magazine' a brilliant skit, entitled 'The Battle of Dorking, or Reminiscences of a Volunteer,' which enjoyed great popularity. It was an imaginary account of a successful invasion and ultimate conquest of England by a foreign invading army. It was designed to urge the serious and practical development of the volunteer movement for purposes of national defence. It was republished as a pamphlet, went through several editions, and was translated into French, German, Dutch, and other languages. In 1874 he published 'The True Reformer,' a novel, of which the keynote was army reform; in 1876 came another novel, 'The Dilemma,' which dealt with the character and organisation of the Indian native soldiery.

In 1880 Chesney left Cooper's Hill on appointment on 1 Dec. to the post of secretary to the military department of the government of India. On 24 May 1883 he was made a companion of the order of the Star of India, and on the termination of his tenure of the office he was made a companion of the order of the Indian Empire on 30 July 1886. He was appointed on 17 June 1886 military member of the governor-general's council, a position akin to that of secretary of state for war at home. He was made a companion of the order of the Bath (military division) on 21 June 1887, and a knight commander on 1 Jan. 1890. During the five years he was military member of council Lord Roberts was commander-in-chief in India, and has written, 'No commander-in-chief ever had so staunch a supporter or so sound an adviser in the member of council as I had.' This period indeed forms an epoch in the military administration of India. The native states were induced to join in the scheme of imperial defence, the equipment and organisation of the army were greatly improved, the defences of the principal harbours and of the frontier of India were nearly completed, and the strategic communications were greatly developed.

In July 1892 Chesney, who had returned to England in the previous year, was elected member for Oxford in the conservative interest at the general election. He spoke occasionally in the House of Commons on questions connected with India or with army administration. He was chairman of the committee of service members. He died suddenly of angina pectoris at his residence, 27 Inverness Terrace, London, on 31 March 1895, and was buried at Englefield Green, Surrey, on 5 April. Chesney married, in 1855, Annie Louisa, daughter of George Palmer of Purneah, Bengal, who, with four sons and three daughters, survived him.

In addition to the works mentioned above Chesney was the author of the following novels: 'The New Ordeal,' 1879; 'The Private Secretary,' 1881; 'The Lesters, or a Capitalist's Labour,' 3 vols. 1893. He contributed largely to periodical literature, and wrote a series of political articles for the July, August, and December numbers of the 'Nineteenth Century' of 1891.

[India Office Records; Despatches; Memoir in Royal Engineers Journal, June 1895, and in Times of 1 April 1895; Lord Roberts's Forty-one Years in India; Vibart's Addiscombe, its Heroes and Men of Note; Medley's A Year's Campaigning in India; Kaye's History of the Sepoy War; Malleson's History of the Indian Mutiny; Norman's Narrative of the Campaign of the Delhi Army and other works on the siege of Delhi; private sources.]

R. H. V.