Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Reid, William (1791-1858)
REID, Sir WILLIAM (1791–1858), major-general royal engineers, and colonial governor, eldest son of James Reid, minister of the established church of Scotland at Kinglassie, Fifeshire, and of his wife Alexandrina, daughter of Thomas Fyers, chief engineer in Scotland, was born at Kinglassie on 25 April 1791. The family of Reid was formerly of Barra Castle, Aberdeenshire. Reid was educated at Musselburgh and at the Edinburgh Academy. He entered the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, in 1806, and before obtaining a commission he was sent to learn practical surveying under Colonel William Mudge [q. v.] He was gazetted a second lieutenant in the royal engineers on 10 Feb. 1809, and promoted first lieutenant 23 April 1810. In the same month he joined the British army under Wellington at Lisbon.
On landing in Portugal, Reid was employed in the construction of the defensive lines of Torres Vedras. In April 1811 he was sent to Elvas to take part in the first siege of Badajos. Ground was broken on 8 May. On 10 May the garrison made a daring sortie, and Reid, who played a gallant part in the encounter, was wounded in the knee. The first siege was raised on 13 May. During the second siege, which was raised in June, Reid did duty in the trenches.
Towards the end of 1811 he served in the expedition under General Don Carlos d'Espagña. The latter commended his zeal and skill to Wellington, who mentioned him in despatches. In January 1812 Reid was at the siege of Ciudad Rodrigo, and was wounded by a bullet in the leg in the assault of 19 Jan., when the place fell. The bullet was never extracted. After the ruined defences had been repaired and strengthened, the fortress was handed over to a Spanish garrison, and Reid, with other officers of royal engineers, was moved to Elvas for the third siege of Badajos. He was employed in the trenches until the place was taken by assault on 6 April. Writing from Elvas on 15 March 1812, Sir Richard Fletcher recommended to the inspector-general of fortifications that Reid should be promoted to the rank of brevet captain on account of his commanding merits at Badajos and Ciudad Rodrigo. The promotion of a lieutenant of royal engineers to the brevet rank was without precedent, and Fletcher's recommendation was rejected.
In June 1812, when Wellington laid siege to the Salamanca forts, Reid made a gallant but ineffectual attempt to blow in a part of the counterscarp of Fort San Vincento. On the 23rd he led an unsuccessful assault by escalade on Fort Gayetano, when 120 men were killed and wounded. He was mentioned both in the general orders of the 6th division by Major-general Sir Henry Clinton and in Wellington's despatch. The capture of the forts was effected on 27 June. On 22 July Reid took part in the battle of Salamanca, entered Madrid with Wellington on the 12th, and was present at the capture of the Retiro palace on 14 Aug. 1812.
In September and October Reid was at the siege of Burgos, and took part in the unsuccessful assault by escalade on the outer line on 22 Sept. Some fortnight later he fell ill and took no further part in the siege, which was raised on 21 Oct. He was in winter quarters with the army in Portugal until May 1813. In June he took a prominent part in the operations preceding the battle of Vittoria. On 19 June, when the division came up with the enemy's rearguard, and was ordered by Wellington to attack their left flank, the direction of the operation was given to Reid, who, with one Caçador battalion, performed the service with masterly effect. In the battle of Vittoria (21 June) Alten wrote that he derived the greatest assistance from Reid's advice and activity.
Even more conspicuous was Reid's action at the siege of San Sebastian, where ground was broken on 11 July 1813. He blew in the counterscarp before dawn on 25 July, and, taking part in the succeeding assault which was repulsed, was wounded in the neck. He was thought to be dead, but his silk neckerchief was found pressed into the wound, and on withdrawing it the bullet came with it. The town was eventually taken by assault on 31 Aug., and the castle surrendered on 8 Sept. On 27 Aug. 1813 Alten directed the especial attention of Sir Richard Fletcher to Reid's gallantry, but Fletcher was killed before Alten's letter arrived, and nothing came of it. In February 1814 he was employed in the construction of the great bridge of boats for the passage of the Adour. He was entrusted with the duty of securing the cables on the right or enemy's bank. Sir William Napier describes the forming of this bridge as a ‘stupendous undertaking, which must always rank among the prodigies of war’ (History of the Peninsular War, vol. vi.).
Reid took part in the battles of the Nivelle, the Nive, and Toulouse, and returned to England at the conclusion of the war. He received his promotion to second captain on 20 Dec. 1814. In July he was ordered to proceed on an expedition under Sir Edward Pakenham against New Orleans, which was unsuccessfully attacked on 4 Jan. 1815. In this attack there was killed a young officer of royal engineers, Lieutenant Wright, who had served throughout the greater part of the Peninsular war alongside of Reid. Wellington used jocosely to refer to the friends as two of his favourite youngsters, ‘Read and Write.’ Reid took part in some further operations and in the capture of Fort Bowyer, near Mobile, on 12 Feb. 1815. He returned to England in May. The following month he went to the Netherlands, and took part in the march to Paris and in the capture and occupation of that city. For his services in the Peninsula he received the silver war medal with eight clasps, but no brevet promotion.
Reid left Paris in January 1816, and was quartered at Woolwich, where, in April, he was appointed adjutant of the royal sappers and miners. A few months later he accompanied the expedition against Algiers under Lord Exmouth, and was on board the Queen Charlotte during the bombardment of the town on 27 Aug., when he and his sappers worked at the guns, and after the action rendered assistance in repairing the damage done to the ship. For their services they were thanked in general orders, and Reid received the medal for Algiers. He returned to England in November, and resumed his duties at Woolwich. On 20 March 1817 he was promoted brevet-major for gallant and distinguished conduct on service, after both Lord Exmouth and Wellington had made strong recommendations on the subject. On 1 Feb. 1819 he was placed on half-pay, on the reduction of the corps of royal engineers, consequent on the return of the army of occupation from France; but he was brought back to full pay on 12 March 1824, and quartered in Ireland. In December he was appointed to the ordnance survey of Ireland, and remained in Dublin until June 1827, when he was left without employment until his promotion, on 28 Jan. 1829, to the regimental rank of first captain. He was then sent to the Exeter district, and took part in the measures for quelling the reform riots in the west of England. On 8 Dec. 1831 he embarked for the West Indies, and at Barbados he did good service in rebuilding the government buildings which had been blown down in the hurricane of 10 Aug. 1831.
The disastrous effect of this hurricane directed Reid's attention to the subject of storms. In his researches he was materially assisted by the previous labours of Mr. William C. Redfield of New York, who had, in a paper to the ‘American Journal of Science’ in 1831, demonstrated that the hurricanes of the American coast were whirlwinds moving on curved tracts with considerable velocity. Reid's correspondence with Redfield in three folio volumes was presented to the library of Yale University, U.S.A., by John H. Redfield. Reid set himself to confirm and extend Redfield's view by collating the log-books of British men-of-war and merchantmen. He also collected data in order to corroborate the theory that south of the equator, in accordance with the regularity evinced in all natural law, storms would be found to move in a directly contrary direction. In May 1834 he returned to England, and, not being required for military duty, he, for a year and a half, continued his investigations.
On 7 Sept. 1835 Reid was placed on half-pay on embarkation for Spain to join the British legion of ten thousand which had been raised in England, with the sanction of the English government, for the service of the queen regent of Spain against Don Carlos. Reid had accepted from General Sir George De Lacy Evans [q. v.], his old comrade in the Peninsula, the command of a brigade of infantry. He saw a good deal of fighting; was at the siege of Bilbao, which was raised in November 1835, co-operated with Espartero in the attack on Arlaban in January 1836, and assisted to raise the siege of San Sebastian on 5 May, when ninety-seven officers and five hundred men out of a force of five thousand were lost. On this occasion Reid was again wounded in the neck while attacking the lines in front of San Sebastian. On 31 May and in the early part of June he took part in the repulse of the Carlist attack on the position of Evans. He returned to England in August, and was restored to the full-pay unemployed list.
On 10 Jan. 1837 he was promoted lieutenant-colonel, and on 17 Feb. was sent to Portsmouth, where he remained for nearly two years. On 19 July 1838 he was made a C.B. In this year the result of his scientific labour was published in London in ‘An Attempt to develop the Law of Storms by means of Facts, arranged according to Place and Time, and hence to point out a Cause for the Variable Winds.’ The volume was illustrated by charts and woodcuts (2nd edit., with additions, 1841; 3rd edit. 1850). The work laid down, for the guidance of seamen, those broad and general rules which are known as the ‘law of storms.’ The announcement of this law was received with the greatest interest by the scientific world, and the book went through many editions and has been translated into many languages, including Chinese.
In January 1839, in which year he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, Reid was appointed governor of the Bermuda Islands. He found the coloured population of the Bermudas, who had been recently freed from slavery, without any education. He established parochial schools throughout the colony and procured annual votes from the legislature for their support. Agriculture was in a very backward state; the chief implement for tilling was the hoe, and exports were confined to arrowroot and onions, the latter being sent only to the West Indies. Reid soon perceived that the Bermudas might be made a market garden for early potatoes and other vegetables for the United States. He set to work to train the people in an improved system of cultivation. He purchased the discharge of some soldiers with a good knowledge of gardening, and employed them as instructors. He imported ploughs and other suitable implements. He introduced the best varieties of seeds, and, by holding agricultural shows and ploughing and sowing matches, stimulated the people to adopt an industry which is now their main support. He started a public library, and in so many ways developed the resources of the colony and improved the condition of the people that to this day he is remembered as the ‘good governor.’
On 23 Nov. 1841 Reid was promoted regimental lieutenant-colonel. In December 1846 he was transferred from the Bermudas to Barbados, to be governor-in-chief of the Windward West India Islands. He devoted himself to the amelioration of the condition of the coloured race and to the development of the resources of the colonies; but he resigned the government in 1848, owing to the action of the colonial office in reinstating the chief justice of St. Lucia, who, having exposed himself to censure in a case of libel, had been suspended by Reid with the approval of the secretary of state. While in Barbados, he first suggested a series of rudimentary technical treatises which was carried out by the publisher, John Weale [q. v.] of Holborn.
Reid returned to England in September 1848, and on 1 Jan. 1849 resumed military duty as commanding royal engineer at Woolwich. He was elected a vice-president of the Royal Society in 1849. On 12 Feb. 1850, on the recommendation of Henry Labouchere (afterwards Lord Taunton) [q. v.], president of the board of trade, Reid was appointed chairman of the executive committee of the Great Exhibition to be held the following year in Hyde Park, London. His judicious arrangements contributed materially to the success of this undertaking, and its punctual opening at the appointed time was in great measure due to his quiet determination. He was rewarded with a civil K.C.B. in 1851.
On 27 Oct. 1851 Reid was appointed governor and commander-in-chief at Malta. On the 11th of the following month he was promoted brevet-colonel. He became a regimental colonel on 17 Feb. 1854 and major-general on 30 May 1856. At Malta Reid displayed the unostentatious activity which had distinguished his previous governments. In a time of special difficulty, when Malta was an entrepôt of the first importance to the British army in the Crimea, and its resources were strained to the uttermost, he succeeded in meeting all demands, acting in perfect harmony with the admiral at the station, Sir Houston Stewart [q. v.] He also carried forward measures for the benefit of the people: he founded an agricultural school; he imported improved agricultural implements; he introduced a new species of the cotton plant and seeds adapted to the climate; he established barometers in public places to warn the shipping and fishermen of impending gales. He also took in hand the library of the old knights of Malta, and, by introducing modern books, made it a useful public library for the community.
Reid returned to England in the summer of 1858, and died after a short illness on 31 Oct. of that year at his residence, 117 (now 93) Gloucester Terrace, Hyde Park, London. He married, on 5 Nov. 1818, at Clapham, Sarah (born on 16 Oct. 1795), youngest daughter of John Bolland, M.P., formerly of Marham, Yorkshire, and later of Clapham, London. Lady Reid died at St. Leonards, Sussex, on 19 Feb. 1858, nine months before her husband. Five daughters survived them, of whom Charlotte Cuyler married General Sir Neville Chamberlain, G.C.B., G.C.S.I.
Reid was a member of the Institute of Civil Engineers and of many learned societies and institutions of various countries. His diplomas, with all his private papers, were destroyed in the fire at the Pantechnicon, Baker Street, London, in 1874. A monument was erected to his memory by the people of the Bermudas in the grounds surrounding the public buildings at Hamilton. It is an obelisk of grey granite, with a medallion bust and inscription. Reid's name is also recorded in the royal engineers' memorial in Rochester Cathedral to the officers who served in the Peninsular war. An engraving was published by Graves of Pall Mall, London, of a portrait of Reid, by J. Lane, a copy of which hangs in the mess of the royal engineers at Chatham. Besides the works noticed, Reid published: 1. ‘Defence of Fortresses,’ pamphlet, 8vo, 1823. 2. ‘Defence of Towns and Villages,’ pamphlet, 8vo, 1823. 3. ‘The Progress of the Development of the Law of Storms and of the Variable Winds, with the Practical Application of the Subject to Navigation,’ 8vo, London, 1849. 4. ‘Narrative, written by Sea-Commanders, illustrative of the Law of Storms and of its Practical Application to Navigation, edited by Sir W. Reid, No. 1,’ 8vo, London, 1851 (no further numbers were published). He made many contributions to the ‘Professional Papers of the Corps of Royal Engineers,’ quarto series, vol. i. 1837: ‘On Assaults,’ ‘Forts of Salamanca and Fortress of Burgos,’ ‘Account of the Attack of Fort Laredo near Santoña,’ ‘Description of the Concrete Sea-wall at Brighton and the Groynes which defend the foot of it,’ ‘A Short Account of the Failure of a Part of the Brighton Chain Pier in the Gale of 30 Nov. 1836,’ ‘Hints for the Compilation of an Aide-Mémoire for the Corps of Royal Engineers,’ ‘On the Destruction of Stone Bridges.’ Vol. ii. 1838: ‘On Entrenchments as Supports in Battle and on the Necessity of completing the Military Organisation of the Royal Engineers,’ ‘Further Observations on the Moving of the Shingle of the Beach along the Coast,’ ‘On Hurricanes.’ Vol. iii. 1839: ‘On the Decomposition of Metallic Iron in Salt Water and of its Reconstruction in a Mineral Form.’ Vol. iv. 1840: ‘On lodging Troops in Fortresses at their Alarm Posts.’ Vol. x. 1849: ‘Properties in Cultivation in St. Lucia.’
[Despatches; War Office Records; Colonial Office Records; Private Correspondence; Royal Engineers' Records; Memoir, by Major-General John Henry Lefroy [q. v.], in the Proc. of the Royal Society of London for 30 Nov. 1858, vol. ix.; Porter's Hist. of the Corps of Royal Engineers, 1889; United Service Gazette, 6 Nov. 1858 and 8 Dec. 1860; Dod's Annual Register, 1858; Times (London), 6 Nov. 1858 and 7 March 1860; Gent. Mag. 1818, vol. lxxxviii.; Wrottesley's Life and Correspondence of Field-Marshal Sir John Burgoyne, 1873; Fifty Years of Public Work, by Sir Henry Cole; Article entitled ‘The Good Governor’ in Household Words, No. 23, 31 Aug. 1850, by Charles Dickens; Times, London, November 1858; United Service Gazette, 6 Nov. 1858 and 8 Dec. 1860; Malta Times, 27 April 1858; Histoire de la Guerre de la Péninsule, par Foy, 1827; Jones's War in Spain, Portugal, and South of France, 1821; Napier's Hist. of the Peninsular War, 1828; Winds and their Courses, with an Examination of the Circular Theory of Storms as propounded by Sir W. Reid, by G. Jinman, 1861.]