Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Walsh, John (1725?-1795)
WALSH, JOHN (1725?–1795), secretary to Clive and man of science, born about 1725, was the son of Joseph Walsh, governor of Fort St. George, by his wife Elizabeth, daughter of Nevil Maskelyne (1663–1711) of Purton, Wiltshire. Nevil Maskelyne [q. v.] and his sister, Margaret Maskelyne, who married Robert, first Baron Clive [q. v.], were his first cousins. Like many of his relatives, Walsh entered the service of the East India Company, and became paymaster of the troops at Madras. In 1757 Clive appointed Walsh his private secretary, and in this capacity he served through the campaign in Bengal in that year. In 1759 Clive commissioned him to lay before Pitt his project for reorganising the administration of Bengal, a subject of which he said Walsh was ‘a thorough master.’ In a letter dated 26 Nov. Walsh gives Clive an account of his interview with Pitt (Malcolm, Life of Clive, ii. 123–5).
Walsh now settled in England, purchasing in 1761 the manor of Hockenhull, Cheshire (Ormerod, ii. 317); he sold it before long, and acquired Warfield Park, Bracknell, Berkshire, in 1771. On 30 March 1761 he was returned to parliament for Worcester (cf. Addit. MS. 32931, ff. 11, 31, 33), his object being mainly to form a parliamentary interest in Clive's support. He retained his seat till 1780, and much of his correspondence with Clive is printed in Malcolm's ‘Life of Clive’ (1836, 3 vols.). He also corresponded with Warren Hastings, but quarrelled with him in 1781 because of the dismissal of his nephew, Francis Fowke, from his post at Benares (Addit. MSS. 29136 f. 169, 29152 ff. 478–91).
Walsh's main interests were, however, scientific, and he was the first person to make accurate experiments on the torpedo fish. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society on 8 Nov. 1770, and F.S.A. on 10 Jan. 1771, and on 1 July 1773 a letter from him to Benjaman Franklin, treating ‘of the electric property of the torpedo,’ was read before the Royal Society (Philosophical Transactions, lxiii. 461). In this paper he for the first time conclusively demonstrated that the singular power of benumbing the sense of touch possessed by the fish was due to electrical influence, and that it could only send a shock through conducting substances. On 23 June 1774 a second letter by Walsh was read before the society, entitled ‘of torpedoes found on the coast of England’ (ib. lxiv. 464). It was addressed to Thomas Pennant [q. v.], the author of ‘British Zoology,’ and was published in pamphlet form (London 1773, 4to). For these discoveries the Royal Society awarded him the Copley medal in 1774, and again in 1783 (Nichols, Lit. Anecdotes, viii. 132). No further experiments were made until 1805, when Humboldt and Gay Lussac examined the properties of the torpedo at Naples; but the first investigator to make fresh discoveries on the subject was John Thomas Todd at the Cape of Good Hope in 1812. Todd's papers on torpedoes are printed in the ‘Philosophical Transactions’ (1816 and 1817).
Walsh died, unmarried, on 9 March 1795 in London, at his residence in Chesterfield Street. He left his property, including Warfield Park, to Sir John Benn, who had married, in 1778, Margaret, daughter of Walsh's sister Elizabeth. Benn assumed, in accordance with the provisions of the will, the additional name of Walsh, and was father of Sir John Benn Walsh, first baron Ormathwaite [q. v.][Ency. Brit. 8th edit. i. 738, viii. 572–3; European Mag. 1795, p. 215; Ann. Reg. 1772 i. 135, 1809 p. 799; Debrett's Baronetage, 1840, p. 569; Burke's Landed Gentry, 1894, ii. 1352; Malcolm's Life of Clive, passim; Notes and Queries, 6th ser. x. 208, 291.]