Gill, William John (DNB00)

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GILL, WILLIAM JOHN (1843–1882), captain royal engineers, son of Major Robert Gill, Madras army, was born at Bangalore in 1843. He was educated at Brighton College, where one of his contemporaries was Augustus Margary, his precursor in travel from China to the Irawadi. From Brighton he went to the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, and obtained a commission in the royal engineers in 1864. In September 1869 he went to India and served there till March 1871. Just before his return to England a distant relation left Gill a handsome fortune, which enabled him to gratify his desire for exploration. On his return from India he was stationed until 1876 at Aldershot, Chatham, and Woolwich.

He first became known as a traveller when he joined Colonel Valentine Baker in the journey to Persia, of which an account was published by Baker early in 1876, under the title of ‘Clouds in the East.’ The journey occupied from April 1873 to the end of that year. The party travelled to Tiflis and Baku, and thence across the Caspian to Ashurada and Astrabad, intending to explore the Atrek valley. Disappointed in this, they proceeded to Teheran and wandered among the Elburz mountains north of that city, crossing the range by a pass 12,000 feet in height, in search of ibex and mouflon. Then skirting the great mountain Demavend they descended into the dense forests of Mazanderan, and, recrossing the mountains to Damghan, followed the northern border of the desert of Khorasan, and after visiting Meshhed struck north to Kila't, the famous stronghold of Nadir Shah. From this they passed on to the Darah-gaz district, and recrossing the great frontier range (Kurendagh) explored the upper course of the Atrek, and thence went south-west by Jahgirm to Shahrúd, and rejoined the high road from Meshhed to Teheran. The survey made by Gill under great difficulties in this expedition embraced valuable additions to geographical knowledge, and formed the subject of a paper read by him at the Belfast meeting of the British Association in 1874, and published in the ‘Geographical Magazine.’

In 1874 Gill stood for Hackney in the conservative interest against Messrs. Reed and Holms, in which, although defeated, he polled 8,994 votes. Six years later he stood for Nottingham, but was again unsuccessful.

In 1876 Gill was ordered to Hongkong, and, while quartered there, he obtained leave to travel in China. He reached Pekin in September. After a trip in the north of Pechili to the borders of Liaotung and the sea terminus of the great wall, he ascended the Yang-tse as far as Chung-Ching in Szechuen, with Mr. Evelyn Colborne Baber for a companion. From Chung-Ching he travelled to Cheng-tu-fu, the famous capital of Szechuen. Here he was delayed, and utilised his time in an excursion to the alps in the north of Szechuen, the ‘Min mountains’ of the ancient Yü-Kung, from which the great Kiang of the Chinese flows down into Szechuen. No traveller had preceded Gill in that part of China. The journey, which formed a loop of some four hundred miles and occupied a month or more, brought the traveller for the first time into partial contact with those highland races whom the Chinese call Mantzu and Sifan. On his return to Cheng-tu, Gill started with Mr. Mesny, who had joined him there, for Eastern Tibet and the Irawadi. His first place of halt was Tachienlu (8,340 ft.), whence he mounted at once to the summit level of the great Tibetan tableland, continuing his journey by Lit'ang (13,280 ft.) to Bat'ang (8,546 ft.) in a tributary valley of the great Kinsha, and then crossing that river he turned south, travelling parallel to the river for twenty-four marches on his way to Talifu, the western capital of Yunnan. Here the most laborious part of his task was done, as the route thence to the Irawadi had been already surveyed by Mr. Baker after the murder of Margary. Having descended the Irawadi, Gill went to Calcutta and back to England, after twenty months of travel. The story of this journey was eventually (1880) published in two volumes under the title of ‘The River of Golden Sand,’ but the scientific results were embodied in an elaborate memoir contributed to the ‘Journal of the Royal Geographical Society,’ and in a map of forty-two sheets on a scale of two miles to one inch. The merits of his enterprise and record of his travel secured in 1879 the gold medal of the Royal Geographical Society, and in the following year that of the Paris Geographical Society.

On his return home he was appointed to the intelligence branch of the war office. When the negotiations at St. Stefano were going on, Gill started with a friend, rather suddenly, for the Danube, to visit the scenes of recent war, but they were prevented from getting beyond Giurgevo by Russian officials, whom they ridiculed in ‘Vanity Fair’ (see ‘Arrested by the Russians,’ June 8, 12, 15, 1878). In the spring of 1879 Gill was sent to Constantinople on duty, in association with Major Clarke, R.A., as assistant boundary commissioner for the new Asiatic boundary between Turkey and Russia, consequent on the Berlin treaty. In the summer of 1880, when the news of the defeat of Maiwand reached England, Captain Gill obtained leave and hurried to the scene, but he did not reach Quetta until Roberts had relieved Kandahar. He was allowed to join Sir C. Macgregor, as a survey officer, in his expedition against the Maris, and was mentioned in despatches. On the termination of the expedition Gill embarked at Karachi for Bandar Abbás, and travelled by Sirgán, Kermán, Yezd, and Teheran, to Meshhed. He hoped to get to Merv, but complaints from M. de Giers of English officers haunting the frontier brought about a recall, and he returned to England by Russia, reaching London 1 April 1881.

In October of the same year the transactions of the French at Tunis had drawn Gill's attention to North Africa, and he obtained leave of absence with the view of obtaining detailed knowledge of the provinces between Tunis and Egypt. At Malta he engaged a dragoman, a Syrian from Beyrout, by name Khalil-Atik, who won his master's regard, rejoined him on the last fatal expedition, and perished with him. Gill went to Tripoli, where he was detained for some months, waiting for a permit to travel from Constantinople, which never came. But Gill dispensed with it, and several interesting journeys were accomplished and a large mass of information collected. His first journey was parallel to the coast westward to Zuara and Farwa, a second to Nalut in the hill country W.S.W. of Tripoli and thence eastward to Yifrin, and then N. by E. to Tripoli; lastly from Tripoli S. into the hill country by Wádi Mijinin, then E. to Homs upon the coast, and back along the coast by Lebda to the capital. From Tripoli he went to Benghazi, and hoped to travel through the Cyrenaica to Egypt, but, stopped by the Turkish authorities, he returned to England viâ Constantinople, arriving in London on 16 June 1882.

On the 21st of the following month he started on his last expedition. He went to Egypt on special service with the rank of deputy-assistant adjutant-general. During the short time he was at home he had been employed in collecting information for the admiralty regarding the Bedouin tribes adjoining the Suez Canal, and in arranging with Professor Palmer for the despatch of the latter to the desert. On the outbreak of hostilities Gill was directed to join Admiral Hoskins at Port Said, as an officer of the intelligence department. The task of cutting the telegraph wire from Cairo, which crossed the desert to El Arish and Syria and so to Constantinople, by which Arabi obtained information and support from Constantinople, devolved upon Gill. He went to Suez (6 Aug.), where he met Professor Palmer and Lieutenant Charrington (the flag-lieutenant of the admiral commanding), and they went together into the desert, Palmer and Charrington to proceed to Nakhl to meet a sheikh from whom they were to purchase camels, and Gill accompanying them with the view of cutting the telegraph. Professor Palmer, who had with him 3,000l. in English sovereigns, had engaged the services of Meter Abu Sofieh, who had falsely represented himself as a head sheikh, to conduct them. The fact that the party had money was known not only to Meter but to others, and there can be no doubt that Meter deliberately plotted to rob if not to murder them. On their arrival in Wady Sudr they were attacked by Bedouins, made prisoners, and murdered in cold blood the next day, 11 Aug. The knowledge of what took place after they entered the desert, the punishment of the murderers, and the recovery of the fragmentary remains of the murdered men were due to Colonel Sir Charles Warren, R.E., who, accompanied by Lieutenants A. E. Haynes and E. M. Burton, R.E., were sent out by the government on a special mission for this purpose. The remains were sent to England and solemnly laid to rest in the crypt of St. Paul's Cathedral at a special funeral service on 6 April 1883. A stained glass window has been placed in Rochester Cathedral to the memory of Captain Gill by his brother officers of the corps of royal engineers.

[Corps Records; R. Eng. Journ. vol. xii.; Parl. Blue-book C. 3494, 1883.]

R. H. V.