Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Weld, Isaac

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WELD, ISAAC (1774–1856), topographical writer, born in Fleet Street, Dublin, on 15 March 1774, was the eldest son by his first wife, Elizabeth Kerr, of Isaac Weld (d. 1824), and half-brother of Charles Richard Weld [q. v.] His great-great-grandfather, the Rev. Edmund Weld, of Blarney Castle, co. Cork, in the time of Cromwell [see under Weld, Thomas], was the descendant of Sir Richard Weld of Eaton. His grandfather was named Isaac after Newton, the intimate friend of his great-grandfather, Dr. Nathaniel Weld. Both Nathaniel (d. 1730) and his son Isaac (d. 1778) were distinguished for learning and piety in the ministry, which they held successively in New Row, Dublin. The latter edited, in four volumes, in 1769, with ‘a preface giving some account of the life of the author,’ the ‘Discourses on Various Subjects’ of Dr. John Leland.

Young Isaac, the third of the name, was sent to the school of Samuel Whyte in Grafton Street, and thence to that of Rochemont Barbauld at Palgrave, near Diss, Norfolk, where he had as schoolfellows Thomas, afterwards first Lord Denman, and Sir William Gell. From Diss he proceeded to Norwich as a private pupil to Dr. Enfield, by whom he was introduced to the Taylor and Martineau families. He left Norwich in 1793, and two years later, having resolved upon exploring the resources of the United States and Canada, he set sail from Dublin for Philadelphia. He arrived in November 1795, his voyage having occupied some sixty days, and spent a little over two years in the country. Accompanied by a faithful servant, sometimes on horseback, sometimes on foot or in a canoe, he made his way (often under the guidance of Indians), through the vast forests and along the great rivers. He narrowly escaped shipwreck on Lake Erie and experienced all the adventure incident to passing through an unsettled country, while in the towns he mixed in the best society, and had the privilege of meeting George Washington. He paid a visit to Mount Vernon, and meditated upon the slaves' cabins that disfigured the prospect. The impediments to locomotion were such that it took him two days and two nights to reach Albany from New York, and eight days between Montreal and Kingston. He returned home at the close of 1797 ‘without entertaining the slightest wish to revisit’ the American continent, and published through Stockdale, in January 1799, his ‘Travels through the States of North America and the Provinces of Upper and Lower Canada during the Years 1795, 1796, and 1797.’ The work was received with great favour, and before the year was out a second edition was called for. The first was in quarto, with plates from original sketches by the author, the second in two volumes octavo, with folded plates; other editions followed in 1800 and 1807. A French version was handsomely got up in Paris, with reduced copies of the plates, ‘better than the originals.’ Two German translations were made, one by Koenig and the other by Mme. Hertz, and a Dutch version also appeared, with copies of the plates in the original size. Weld was introduced at the ‘Institut’ at Paris as an American traveller, was elected a member of the Historical and Literary Society of Quebec, and on 27 Nov. 1800 was elected a member of the Royal Dublin Society, of which he subsequently (in 1849) became vice-president.

In 1801, at the request of the lord lieutenant of Ireland, Lord Hardwicke, Weld drew up a paper on the subject of emigration, based upon some of the data given in his book, in which an effort was made to divert the stream of emigration from the United States to Canada. Lord Hardwicke in return interested himself successfully in procuring for Weld the reversion of a lucrative post in the Irish customs, which had been held by his father. When, however, the father died in 1824 the salary of the post was reduced to vanishing point, and Weld never secured any adequate compensation for this injustice.

In the meantime Weld had fully sustained his reputation as a topographer in his ‘Illustrations of the Scenery of Killarney and the surrounding Country’ (London, 1807, 4to, and 1812, 8vo), illustrated by eighteen engravings on copper from drawings by the author. During his peregrinations in the south-west of Ireland he navigated the lakes in a boat which he manufactured out of compressed brown paper, and he also ascended the then little known summit of Gherauntuel, in the Macgillicuddy Reeks.

In May 1815 he sailed upon what was then thought a perilous voyage, embarking in the pioneer 14 horse-power steamboat Thames, sailing from Dunleary to London. His voyage, during which, though the weather was rough, the small steamer overhauled all the shipping in the Channel, formed the subject of an animated narrative in ‘Fraser's Magazine’ for September 1848. In 1838, at which time he held the post of senior honorary secretary to the Royal Dublin Society, Weld drew up for this body his compendious ‘Statistical Survey of the County of Roscommon’ (Dublin, 8vo). Weld took a keen interest in Irish industries, and first suggested the triennial exhibitions which the Royal Dublin Society inagurated. In 1838 he gave valuable evidence before the select committee appointed to inquire into the administration of the society. In his later years he travelled extensively in Italy and spent much time in Rome, where he became intimate with Canova. He died on 4 Aug. 1856 at Ravenswell, near Bray, where the greater portion of his later life, when he was not upon his travels, had been spent. He married at Edinburgh, in 1802, Alexandrina Home, but left no issue. The members of the Royal Dublin Society raised a monument to his memory in Mount Jerome cemetery in the course of 1857.

[Dublin Univ. Mag. No. xlix (Jan. 1857); Proc. Royal Dublin Society, xciii. 3, 5, 22, 25, xciv. 14, 17; Athenæum, 1857, i. 19; Stevenson's Cat. of Voyages and Travels, No. 808; Monthly Rev. 1799 iii. 200, 1808 i. 18; Quarterly Rev. ii. 314; Randall's Life of Jefferson, 1858, iii. 340; Gent. Mag. 1855, i. 610; Tuckerman's America and her Commentators, 1864, p. 208; De Quincey's Opium Eater, 1886, p. 83.]

T. S.