Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Pierson, William Henry

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PIERSON, WILLIAM HENRY (1839–1881), major (late Bengal) engineers, eldest son of Charles Pierson of Cheltenham, by his wife, Louisa Amelia, daughter of William Davidson of Havre, France, was born at Havre on 23 Nov. 1839. He was educated at Southampton and Cheltenham College, which he entered in 1853. He soon rose to be head of the college. In 1856 he won the gold medal of the British Association; and Captain Eastwick, a director of the East India Company, without knowing him, and, on the strength of this success, gave him a nomination for the East India Company's military college at Addiscombe. There he gained the Pollock medal and six prizes. He obtained his commission in three terms, competing against four-term men; was first in mathematics, and was gazetted a lieutenant in the Bengal engineers from 10 Dec. 1858. The lieutenant-governor, Major-general Sir F. Abbott, described him as ‘the most talented scholar I have seen at Addiscombe, and his modesty would disarm envy itself.’ At Chatham, where he went through the usual course of professional instruction, he studied German privately, and was an admirable chess-player, musician, and oarsman.

Pierson went to India in October 1860, and soon went on active service with the Sikhim field force; from January to May 1861 he did such good engineering work in bridging the Tísta and Riman rivers, under great local difficulties, that he was three times mentioned in despatches, and received the thanks of the governor-general. Returning from Sikhim, Pierson joined the public works department in Oudh, where his successful construction of the Faizabád road gained him promotion in the department. He was fond of sport, and while in Oudh distinguished himself in pig-sticking.

When the Indo-European telegraph was commenced in 1863, Pierson was selected for employment under Colonel Patrick Stewart. In the winter of 1863–4 he served at Baghdad under Colonel Bateman-Champain, who posted him to the charge of 220 miles of line, from Baghdad to Kangawár. His work was very arduous. Bateman-Champain recorded that the eventual success of the telegraph was chiefly due to Pierson's indefatigable exertions, to his personal influence with the Persian authorities, and with the Kurdish chiefs of the neighbourhood.

In 1866 Pierson was sent on telegraph duty to the Caucasus, and on his return march narrowly escaped being murdered by a dozen disbanded Persian soldiers. After short leave in England, and acting at Vienna as secretary to the British representative at the international telegraph conference, he was placed at the disposal of the foreign office to design and construct the new palace of the British legation at Teheran. The building does equal honour to his taste as an architect and his skill as an engineer. He was promoted captain on 14 Jan. 1871.

While director of the Persian telegraph from October 1871 to October 1873 the excellence of his reports and of his administration repeatedly evoked the special thanks of the government of India. During the famine of 1871 he worked, in addition, with desperate energy to relieve the starving population of Persia, a duty for which he was well fitted by his thorough knowledge of the country and of the Persian language. He also designed, at the shah's request, some beautiful plans for public offices in Jekran, sketching and working out every detail himself.

Returning to England in 1874, he applied himself to the question of harbour defences and armour-plating, and studied at Chatham, acting for a time as instructor in field works. He left Chatham the following year, and, until his return to India from furlough in November 1876, he devoted himself to music and painting. In July 1877 he was appointed secretary to the Indian defence committee, and was the moving spirit in the consideration of the proposed defences for the Indian ports of Aden, Karáchi, Bombay, Madras, Calcutta, and Rangoon.

During the Afghan campaigns of 1878–81 the services of Pierson were several times applied for by the military authorities, in one case by General Sir Frederick (now Field Marshal Lord) Roberts. He was actually appointed assistant adjutant-general royal engineers with the Kábul force, but he could not be spared from his post on the Indian defence committee.

In September 1880 Pierson was appointed military secretary to Lord Ripon, the governor-general, in succession to Sir George White (afterwards commander-in-chief in India and field-marshal). He mastered the work, and the viceroy publicly expressed his thanks to him on the occasion of his winning prizes for painting at the Simla fine arts exhibition in 1880. Pierson subsequently accompanied Lord Ripon on a winter tour through India with a view to determine defensive requirements of the chief naval and military positions of the peninsula. Pierson was promoted regimental major on 25 Nov. 1880, and in March 1881 was appointed commanding royal engineer of the field force proceeding against the Mahsud Wazíri tribe. He joined the expedition in weak health, but in high spirits at the prospect of command on active service, to which he had long looked forward. Throughout the expedition the royal engineers were much exposed, in road-making, mining, and other arduous duties, to the great heat, and on returning to Bannu Pierson was seized with dysentery, and died rather suddenly on 2 June 1881.

Pierson's name has been commemorated by the corps of royal engineers in the Afghan memorial in Rochester Cathedral, and by a marble tablet, on which is a large medallion relief of his head, placed by the council in Cheltenham College chapel. He married, at Hollingbourn, Kent, in August 1869, Laura Charlotte, youngest daughter of Richard Thomas, who was nephew and heir of Richard Thomas of Kestanog, Carmarthenshire, and of Eyhorne, Kent. There was no issue of the marriage, and the widow survives.

[Despatches; India Office Records; Memoir and Notes in the Royal Engineers' Journal, vols. xi. and xiv.; private information; Vibart's Addiscombe, its Heroes and Men of Note.]

R. H. V.