Nelson, Richard John (DNB00)

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NELSON, RICHARD JOHN (1803–1877), major-general royal engineers and geologist, son of General Richard Nelson, was born at Crabtree, near Plymouth, on 3 May 1803. Educated at a private school at Tamerton Foliott, near Plymouth, he joined the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich on 25 March 1818. While a cadet he designed a rifled field-piece, of which the projectile was to be coated with lead, an invention which was only fully developed by others many years later. After passing out of the academy as eligible for a commission in the royal engineers, he had to wait for it, on account of the reduction in the army, until 6 Jan. 1826, when he was gazetted second lieutenant in the royal engineers, and was sent to Chatham for a year, and then to Woolwich.

In March 1827 Nelson went to the Bermudas. Promoted lieutenant on 22 May 1829, he was employed in the superintendence of the various works of defence in the Bermuda islands, which were partially executed by convict labour. Nelson wrote an elaborate paper on the different descriptions of labour in different works, and the relative value of each kind. He also employed his leisure in studying the coral formation of the islands, and prepared several papers on the subject, which were illustrated by many beautiful drawings. He returned to England in June 1833, and was stationed at Woolwich. On 14 Nov. 1835 he embarked for the Cape of Good Hope, returning to England in December 1838. He was quartered at Plymouth until April 1841, when he went to Canada. Nelson was promoted second captain on 1 Sept. 1841. In July 1842 he returned to England, and in January 1843 was sent to Ireland. While quartered in Ireland, in conjunction with Colonel G. G. Lewis [q. v.] and Sir Harry Jones [q. v.], he edited ‘The Aide-Memoire of Military Science’ in 1846, and himself contributed many articles. Nelson was promoted first captain 1 April 1846. During the three years following he served in the western district at Devonport and Pembroke dock. On 29 June 1849 he embarked for Nassau, in the Bahamas, and devoted his leisure to the geology of the islands. He wrote some papers on the formation of the islands, accompanied by very carefully prepared drawings. After two years he was invalided home. In December 1851 he was again sent to the western district, and was quartered chiefly at Plymouth until 1858. On 14 June 1854 he was promoted brevet-major, and on 20 June the same year regimental lieutenant-colonel. On 20 June 1857 he became a colonel in the army. In September 1858 he was appointed commanding royal engineer at Halifax, Nova Scotia. He made a tour in the coal district of that province, and sent home his notes and collection of specimens; but, after arriving safely in England, they were lost in transit.

He returned to England in August 1861. On 5 Feb. 1864 he was promoted major-general, and retired on full pay. He resided at Stoke, Devonport, until his death, on 17 July 1877. Nelson married, on 6 Aug. 1839, at Ipswich, Lucy, daughter of Thomas Howard. She survived him without issue.

Nelson's ‘Geology of the Bermudas’ is a standard work, and is referred to by Lyell in his ‘Principles’ and by Wyville Thompson in his ‘Notes from the Challenger.’ Some beautiful drawings of the general appearance and the structure of the parts of various coral formations, both from the Bermudas and the Bahamas, with descriptive notes, are in the Royal Engineers' Institute at Chatham. A collection of specimens which he made in the Bermudas was distributed between the Geological Society of London, the Royal United Service Institution, London, and the Berlin Academy.

Nelson was author of ‘The 2nd Part of Memoranda of the Bahama Tornado of 1850, the 1st Part of which was written by W. J. Woodcock,’ 1850, 8vo; of ‘Lockspeise, or Inducement to the Study of the German Language, by the Removal of the last serious Difficulty in the way of a Beginner,’ London and Devonport, printed 1855, 8vo. He contributed to the ‘Professional Papers’ of the corps of royal engineers: (1) Quarto ser. vol. iii. p. 121, ‘Report on Beaufort Bridge, Cape of Good Hope;’ (2) p. 132, ‘Rough Sketch of Suspension Bridge over the Lahn at Nassau;’ (3) p. 139, ‘On the Mode of Bending Timber adopted in Prussia;’ (4) p. 142, ‘Foot-bridge built with Prussian Beams.’ (5) Vol. iv. p. 12, ‘Notes on Shot Furnaces;’ (6) p. 136, ‘Comparative Values of Convict and other Labour;’ (7) p. 198, ‘Notices on the new Victualling Establishment at Devonport.’ (8) Vol. v. p. 7, ‘Part of Report on last 150 Miles of Great Fish River, South Africa;’ (9) p. 90, ‘Remarks and Experiments on Various Woods, foreign and domestic.’ (10) Vol. vii. p. 48, ‘Swing or Flying Bridges;’ (11) p. 52, ‘On Lime and Limestone from Quarries at Plymouth.’ (12) New ser. vol. i. p. 14, ‘Discussional Project for an Enceinte.’ (13) Vol. vi. p. 119, ‘Fragment on Coast Defences.’ (14) Vol. vii. p. 73, ‘Fragments on the Composition and Construction of Military Reports;’ (15) p. 130, ‘Syllabus of Studies, Duties, &c., of an Engineer Officer.’ (16) Vol. x. p. 121, ‘A Lunar Tide at Lake Michigan.’ (17) Vol. xi. p. 144, ‘On the Construction and Application of Vaulted Revetements.’ (18) Vol. xii. p. 199, ‘Siege Operations at Grandenz.’ He contributed to the publications of the Geological Society, of which he was a fellow, papers ‘On the Geology of the Bermudas,’ vol. v. ‘Transactions,’ 2nd ser. and vol. ii. ‘Proceedings;’ and ‘On the Geology of the Bahamas, and on Coral Formations generally,’ vol. ix. ‘Journal.’

[War Office Records; Royal Engineer Corps Records; obituary notice in the Royal Engineers' Journal for September 1877, written by General Sir Henry Drury Harness q. v.]

R. H. V.