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1 Eton, Dublin and Angers
1769 -- 87
`My ugly boy Arthur is food for powder and nothing more.'
Among the new boys whose baggage was set down at the gates of Eton in the autumn of 1781 were two of the five sons of the first Earl of Mornington. The elder, the Hon. Arthur Wesley, was twelve years old, the younger, Gerald, was nine. Neither had yet shown much aptitude for scholarship and they were not expected to shine at Eton in the glittering manner of their eldest brother, Richard, who had mastered Greek and Latin with equal facility, had, afterwards at Oxford, won the Chancellor's Prize for Latin Verse, and would, no doubt, have taken an excellent degree had not the early death of his father necessitated his presence at home.
His father, Garret Wesley, Lord Mornington, had not been a practical man. Descendant of an ancient English family which had been settled in Ireland for generations, he had been a member of the Irish House of Commons before passing to the Irish House of Lords. But he had been more interested in music than in politics. His own father, Richard Colley Wesley, had been a musician of sorts, playing the violin quite well, so it was said, `for a gentleman'. There was an organ in the hall of the Wesleys' country house, Dangan Castle, in the county of Meath, another organ in the chapel there and a harpsichord in the breakfast room. But Richard Colley Wesley had been essentially an amateur, whereas his son, a composer as well as performer from his early youth, had been able to take his place among the virtuosi of Dublin's musical world and had been appointed Professor of Music at Trinity College. His godmother, Mary Delany, however, while acknowledging Garret Wesley's musical talents, found him rather deficient in `the punctilios of good breeding', and had consequently been much gratified when he announced that he was to marry Lady Louisa Augusta Lennox, daughter of the second Duke of Richmond. Unfortunately, Lady Louisa had developed other ideas. Confessing that she had conceived an insurmountable dislike for her noble suitor, she had accepted instead the hand of a richer young man; and Lord Mornington, whose father had died the year before, married Anne Hill, the eldest daughter of a banker, Arthur Hill, later Hill-Trevor, the first Viscount Dungannon, a sixteen-year-old girl who, in the opinion of Mrs Delany, was modest and good-natured but, like her husband, rather gauche in manner, and, according to Mrs Nicolson Calvert, the beautiful Irish wife of an English Member of Parliament, a somewhat `commonplace character'.
The young couple had appeared to suit each other well. They had lived contentedly in the country at Dangan Castle and in Dublin in a handsome house facing Sefton Street. Their first child, Richard, had been born in 1760 and was styled Viscount Wellesley, that variation of the family name, which his brothers were later to adopt, being preferred as older and more aristocratic than Wesley with its associations of evangelical Methodism. Other children had followed at regular intervals: a second son, Arthur, who did not live long, a third son, William in 1763, then another boy, Francis, who died in childhood, followed in 1768 by a daughter, Anne, and on 29 April the following year by a sixth child who was named, like his little dead brother, Arthur, after his mother's father. Arthur's younger brother, Gerald Valerian, was born in 1770, the youngest son, Henry in 1773, and yet another child, Mary Elizabeth, soon afterwards.
By then the family had left their house in Dublin and moved to London where the children would grow up to speak without the Irish accent which, it was considered, `might be a disadvantage' to them `in society hereafter'. They lived in rented rooms in Knightsbridge, their father by now in debt, struggling, not very successfully, to maintain a household befitting his rank, as well as a coach, on an income of 1,800 [pounds sterling] a year. His son, Arthur, who had been given his first lessons in a small school in the shadow of Dangan Castle, was sent to Brown's Seminary, later known more grandly as Oxford House Academy, in King's Road, Chelsea. He was, by his own admission, a shy, indolent and dreamy little boy who was often to be seen standing silently alone under a walnut tree while the other children played their rowdy games. So he was not sorry when, his eldest brother having mortgaged the family's estates in Meath on their father's death, he was sent with Gerald to Eton.
Eton in 1781 was a school of some three hundred boys. The activities to be seen on the playing fields appeared to the uninitiated to be more like free-for-all fights than games; and so, indeed, they often were. It was not until halfway through the next century that football rules became sufficiently standardized for public schools to play matches against each other without brawling on the pitch. An unsociable boy, quarrelsome in his reserve, Arthur Wesley seems to have enjoyed neither football nor cricket; nor is there record of his having played any of the other games with which his fellow Etonians passed the hours they spent outside the classroom, fives and hoops, hopscotch, marbles and battledore. In later years he recalled leaping over a wide ditch in the garden of his old house, but he said he could not remember a fight he had evidently had with an older boy, Robert Percy (`Bobus') Smith, the ugly, amusing brother of Sydney Smith, the witty Canon of St Paul's, whom he had provoked by throwing a stone at him when he was bathing. According to the school's historian, Arthur Wesley did `little else', other than engage in this fight, `to attract the attention of his schoolfellows'. Certainly he did not look back upon his days at Eton with any pleasure and returned to the school but rarely.
As for his work in class, he made very slow progress, labouring gloomily in the Fourth Form, his name appearing in the lists at number fifty-four out of a total of seventy-nine boys, many if not most of them younger than himself. His command of the classics, for all the hours he was required to spend poring over Ovid and Caesar, remained so highly uncertain that in later life he was to pronounce that his two standard rules for public speaking were never to take on subjects he knew nothing about and, whenever possible, to avoid quoting Latin.
Early in 1784, after his younger brother, Henry, had entered the Lower Remove, it was decided that the family's finances could no longer be stretched to keep Wesley major at a school whose education seemed to be profiting him so little. So he left Eton and, after a short spell with a tutor, a clergyman in Brighton, he was taken by his mother to Brussels where, it was hoped, she might live more economically and he would progress in French more satisfactorily than he had done in Greek and Latin. He did learn to speak French after a fashion and with a Belgian accent; but his other studies were not pursued with noticeable vigour and he spent much of his time in the lodgings his mother had taken for them in the house of a lawyer, Louis Goubert, playing the violin with patient assiduity and some of the skill of his father: a fellow lodger in the house, the son of a Yorkshire baronet, considered that Wesley played very well, adding that it was the only species of talent that the young man appeared to possess.
After a few months his mother went home, having talked to him about his future career. His eldest brother, after succeeding his father as Earl of Mornington, had made a name for himself in the Irish House of Lords and been elected to the English House of Commons as Member for Beeralston in Devonshire. His second brother, William, having served for a time in the Navy, had assumed the additional surname of Pole, on becoming heir to the estates of his cousin William Pole of Ballyfin, Queen's County, and had been elected Member for Trim in the Irish Parliament. Gerald Valerian, who had gone to Eton with Arthur, was destined for the Church and, in due course, for a prebendal stall at Durham. Henry, the youngest of the brothers, was still at Eton and had thoughts of joining the Army. Their mother, a woman now forty-two years old, rather severe in manner, ready to feel pride in her sons' achievements but incapable of demonstrating much affection for them, considered that Arthur, too, might do worse than become a soldier. Indeed, in her opinion, her `ugly boy Arthur' was `food for powder and nothing more'. He himself was as yet undecided about his future; but he had no objections to going to Angers in western France to enrol in the celebrated Academy there and undergo a training, as much designed for men of fashion as for future officers, which would include fencing, riding and dancing lessons as well as some instruction in French grammar, mathematics and the science of military fortifications.
It proved to be a not too demanding course. Monsieur Wesley was quite regular in his attendance at the lessons of the dancing and fencing masters and the riding instruction given by the proprietor of the Academy, M. de Pignerolle, whose great-great-grandfather had presided over it in the days of King Louis XIV. Yet the seventeen-year-old Wesley found time to take his dog, a white terrier called Vick, for walks around the town's thirteenth-century moated castle, to play cards with M. de Pignerolle's English and Irish students, known to the French as the groupe des lords, to occupy idle hours by dropping coins from upstairs windows on to the heads of unwary citizens in the streets below, to sit at cafe tables, in the Academy's smart uniform of scarlet coat with blue facings and yellow buttons, watching the passing scene, and to accept the invitations which were readily offered to the more presentable of their number by the local noblesse. They were entertained in nearby chateaux by the duc de Brissac, the duc de Praslin and the duchesse de Sabran; and Wesley afterwards related how he met not only the Abbe Sieyes, who was soon to play so prominent a part in the revolutionary deliberations of the Estates General at Versailles, but also Francois Rene Chateaubriand, who, having decided he had no vocation for the priesthood, was then a cavalry officer a few months older than himself.
By the time he returned home in 1786, fluent now in French, and having impressed M. de Pignerolle as `an Irish lad of great promise', Wesley decided that he would take his mother's advice and allow his brother Richard to use his influence, as a junior member of William Pitt's administration, to obtain a commission for him in the Army.
2 An Officer in the 33rd
1787 -- 93
`Those who think lightly of that lad are unwise in their generation.'
`He is here at this moment, and perfectly idle,' Lord Mornington wrote on his brother's behalf. It was, he added, a `matter of indifference' to him what commission his brother got, provided he got it soon and it was not in the artillery which would not suit his rank or intellect. Early in March 1787, a few weeks before his eighteenth birthday, the reply came: Arthur Wesley could be offered a commission as ensign in the 73rd (Highland) Regiment of Foot.
His mother was delighted. She thought him much improved upon his return from Angers, she told two friends of hers, Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Sarah Ponsonby, who were living together on terms of romantic friendship, totally isolated from society in a cottage at Llangollen in North Wales. These ladies, described by Prince Puckler-Muskau as `certainly the most celebrated virgins in Europe', had already met Arthur Wesley. He had been taken to see them by his grandmother, Lady Dungannon, who lived nearby, while still an Eton schoolboy, and he had been awkward in their company, disturbed by their semi-masculine attire and Lady Eleanor's top hat. But he was not awkward now, his mother assured them. `He really is a charming young man,' she said. `Never did I see such a change for the better in any body.'
She used her influence with the Marquess of Buckingham, the Duke of Portland's successor as Lord-Lieutenant in Dublin, to have him appointed to his lordship's staff as aide-de-camp; and she recorded with satisfaction his promotion to Lieutenant in the 76th (Hindoostan) Regiment of Foot, and then, since this regiment was returning to India, his transfer to the 41st.
He called upon the `Ladies of Llangollen' on his way to take up his duties in Ireland; and they agreed with his mother that the eighteen-year-old boy was now greatly improved and had much to recommend him. He was `a charming young man', Lady Eleanor decided, `handsome ... and elegant'.
Not everyone in Dublin concurred with her. One young lady was thankful to be able to escape from his company; another, older woman, Lady Aldborough, having taken him to a picnic in her carriage, declined to have him with her on the return journey because `he was so dull'; yet another refused to attend a party if that `mischievous boy' was to be of the company: he had such an irritating habit of flicking up the lace from shirt collars. To the Napier family he gave the impression of beeing a shallow, saucy stripling'. It had to be conceded, though, that the time spent in dancing classes in Angers had not been wasted, that he rode well even if his seat was a trifle ungainly, and that, while on occasions rather stiff, his manner, when not in one of his prankish moods, was pleasant enough, his conversation interesting, though small talk was never his forte.
It was quite clear that he enjoyed the company of women and, when at ease with them, was `good humoured' in their company. He also enjoyed the excitement of gambling. Indeed, it was said of him that, like the denizens of White's club in St James's, he would bet on anything. On one occasion, for example, he won 150 guineas by getting from Cornelscourt outside Dublin to Leeson Street, a distance of six miles, in under an hour. But he lost as often as he won; and sank ever deeper into debt. He seems not to have kept a mistress as his brother, Richard, did at great expense, having chosen to live with an attractive Frenchwoman of extravagant tastes and philoprogenitive inclinations whom he later married after she had given birth to five children; but Arthur does appear to have frequented a brothel, once evidently being fined for an assault upon a fellow customer of the establishment, a Frenchman whose stick he seized and beat him with.
Yet Arthur Wesley had his serious and ambitious side. He took trouble to exercise his talent with the violin and to improve the quality of his playing. He read a great deal: he was once discovered studying Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding. The Hon. George Napier who had served on Sir Henry Clinton's staff in America and was then a captain in the 100th Foot, commented, `Those who think lightly of that lad are unwise in their generation: he has in him the makings of a great general.'
He was already beginning to make a name for himself, as the ambitious Richard had done so quickly. Arthur contrived to get elected at the age of nineteen to the Irish House of Commons for the family seat of Trim, formerly held by his brother William, having first become a Freemason and having publicly declared his opposition to the Corporation of Trim's decision to confer the freedom of the place upon Henry Grattan, the Irish patriot whose views on Roman Catholic emancipation were not conducive to the peace of mind of Lord Buckingham; and, although he did not speak in the House of Commons for two years, when he did so his maiden speech was quite well received. So were his subsequent interventions, even if, in the opinion of Jonah Barrington, a judge in the Irish court of admiralty, whom he met at a dinner party, he never spoke on important subjects.
Lieutenant Wesley began to believe that he could become a politician if he so willed it. Yet, as revolution gained momentum in France with the storming of the Tuileries in August 1792, the September Massacres and the execution of the King, Wesley's thoughts turned again and again from politics to the Army and to service overseas. By transfers and purchase, he was advancing in his profession. From the 41st Foot he had been transferred to the 12th Light Dragoons; from the Dragoons he had returned to the infantry as a captain in the 58th Foot; from the 58th he had gone back to the cavalry as a captain in the 18th Light Dragoons; and, having appealed to his brother Richard for the money, he had bought a major's rank in the 33rd Foot.
Tired of trotting about at the Lord-Lieutenant's heels in Dublin for a paltry ten shillings a day, though this was a welcome addition to his scanty private income of 125 [pounds sterling] a year, he was anxious to go to war. He gave up gambling; he paid off what debts he could, including one to the boot-maker with whom he lodged; he resigned his Trim seat, and gave away his violin, believing, so a friend later recorded, that playing the fiddle was `not a soldierly accomplishment and took up too much of his time and thoughts'.
He wrote to Richard to ask him to approach the authorities on his behalf and tell them that, if any part of the Army were to be sent abroad, he wanted to go with it. `They may as well take me as anybody else.'
For the moment they did not take him. He was kept in Ireland drilling the soldiers of the 33rd and supervising the logging of the regimental accounts, a responsibility he did not find as tedious as might have been expected, for he had a good head for figures, a respect for detail and a pride in his talent for `rapid and correct calculation'. In the autumn of 1793 he made a brief visit to England where he witnessed his brother's signature to the deed of sale of Dangan Castle, but he was soon back in Ireland, a lieutenant-colonel by then, in command of the 33rd, frustratingly confined to regimental duties while news came from Paris of the horrors of the Terror and the blade of the guillotine rose and fell.