Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Brereton, Thomas (1782-1832)
BRERETON, THOMAS (1782–1832), lieutenant-colonel, was born in King's County, Ireland, on 4 May 1782. He went as a volunteer to the West Indies with his uncle, Captain Coghlan, in 1797, and received his commission as ensign in the 8th West India regiment in 1798, being promoted lieutenant 1800, and captain 1804. With the exception of a short term of service in Jersey in 1803-4, he appears to have remained in the West Indies until 1813, acting for a time as brigade-major to his relative, General Brereton, governor of St. Lucia, and being present at the capture of Martinique and Guadaloupe. In consequence of ill-health and of injuries received during a hurricane in 1813, he returned that year to England invalided. In 1814 he was appointed lieutenant-governor of Senegal and Goree, and the next year was made lieutenant-colonel of the Royal African corps. In December 1816 he was again invalided, and returned to England. He was appointed to a command on the frontier of the Cape Colony in 1818, visited England in 1819, and commanded the Cape Town garrison until 1823. In the meanwhile he had exchanged first into the 53rd regiment, afterwards into the Royal York Rangers, and in 1821 into the 49th regiment. On his final return to England he was appointed inspecting field officer of the Bristol recruiting district. As senior officer on the spot he had command of the troops quartered in the neighbourhood of Bristol at the outbreak of the Reform riots in that city on Saturday, 29 Oct. 1831. These troops were composed of a squadron of the 14th light dragoons and a troop of the 3rd dragoon guards. About five p.m. of 29 Oct. the mayor was forced to read the Riot Act, and Brereton was called on to bring his force at once into Bristol. During the half-hour that passed before his arrival the lower part of the mansion house was sacked. Brereton appears to have been ordered by the magistrates to clear the streets. Their orders, however, did not seem to him to warrant any forcible measures, and he ordered Captain Gage to disperse the mob without drawing swords or using any violence. Brereton endeavoured to bring the people to good humour, and came in from time to time to tell the magistrates that he had been shaking hands with them, and that they were gradually dispersing. As, on the contrary, the numbers and threatening aspect of the mob increased, at eleven p.m. he ordered Gage to clear the streets by force. The soldiers were badly pelted, and Gage asked the mayor to allow them to use their carbines to dislodge those who were pelting them from a distance. Brereton, however, thought this was unnecessary, and the request was refused. A soldier belonging to a troop of the 14th, detailed to protect the council house, shot a rioter who had struck him with a stone, and this added to the rage of the mob. The streets were, however, cleared by the sabres of the dragoons, and were kept free during the remainder of the night. On Sunday the riot broke out afresh, and the sack of the mansion house was completed. The 14th were fiercely attacked, and, as they had no orders to retaliate, the men suffered severely. Brereton ordered that they should leave Queen's Square, in which the mansion house stood, and that the 3rd dragoons should take their place. In obeying the order they were so pressed by the rioters that they were forced to fire on them. Brereton, however, rode down from College Green to the square, and, it is said, assured the rioters that there should be no more firing, and that the 14th should be sent out of the city. On his applying to the magistrates to allow him to remove the 14th he was told that they would not agree to his doing so. Brereton, however, ordered them to Keynsham, declaring that if they were kept in Bristol every man would be sacrificed, and the troop of the 3rd dragoons was left alone to protect the city. The mob then broke open and set fire to the bridewell, the gaol, and the Gloucester county gaol, and released the prisoners. Meanwhile, Brereton ordered Cornet Kelson to go down to the city gaol, but on Kelson asking for orders said he had none to give, that he could find no magistrates to give him the authority he needed, and that no violence was to be used. During these proceedings the soldiers were in too small force to interfere with any effect, and it is said that Brereton went to bed for some hours. By midnight the bishop's palace, the mansion house, the custom house, and a large number of other buildings were destroyed. In the course of the night the Doddington yeomanry were brought into Bristol; but some difficulty having arisen as to their billets, Brereton told their captain that they could be of no use, and that if the people were let alone they would be peaceable. Accordingly the yeomanry returned to Doddington. Early in the morning of Monday Brereton went down to Queen's Square in company with Major Mackworth, and in his presence Mackworth and the 3rd dragoons charged and dispersed the crowd. Major Beckwith, of the 14th, now arrived from Gloucester, and, having brought back the division of the 14th previously sent away by Brereton, took the command of the cavalry, made repeated charges on the rioters, and restored some measure of security. On 4 Nov. the magistrates sent documents to Lord Melbourne and Lord Hill defending their own conduct during the riots, and laying much blame on Brereton, whom they accused of disregarding their orders, of forsaking his post, and of withdrawing the 14th from the city. In consequence of these charges a military commission was held to inquire into Brereton's conduct. This was followed by a court-martial on him, which was opened at Bristol on 9 Jan. 1832 by Sir Henry Fane as president. The substance of the eleven charges made against him was that he had been negligent and inactive; that he had not obeyed or supported the civil authority; that he had improperly withdrawn the 14th; that he had refused to give Cornet Kelson the needful orders, and had neglected to take advantage of the arrival of the yeomanry. On Friday, the fifth day of the trial, the proceedings were stopped by the news of Brereton's death: he had shot himself in his bed early that morning. The verdict at the inquest was that 'he died from a pistol-wound, inflicted on himself while under a fit of temporary derangement.' His unfortunate errors seem to have been the fruit of undecided character rather than of any deliberate neglect. On 4 May 1782 he had married Olivia Ross, daughter of Hamilton Ross, formerly of the 81st regiment and then a merchant at the Cape. Mrs. Brereton died on 14 Jan. 1829, leaving two daughters, who survived their father.
[Colburn's United Service Journal, 1831, pt. iii. 433, 1832, pt. i. 257; Monthly Repository (new series), v. 840, vi. 130; Somerton's Narrative of the Bristol Riots; Court-martial on Lieutenant-colonel Brereton in Somerton's Bristol Riots Tracts; Trial of C. Pinney, late Mayor of Bristol; Gent. Mag. 1832, i. 84.]