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Rowland Hill, first Viscount Hill (1772-1842)

This article was written by Henry Manners Chichester and was published in 1891
Viscount Hill

Coloured etching by John Romney, published by Richard Evans, 10 October 1815.

Rowland Hill, first Viscount Hill, general, was the second son and fourth of the sixteen children of John Hill, afterwards third baronet, of Hawkstone, Shropshire, by his wife Mary, daughter of Robert Chambre of Petton in the same county. Hill was born at Prees Hall, near Hawkstone, on 11 August 1772. He was nephew of the Rev. Rowland Hill (1744-1833). At the age of seven he was sent to school at Ightfield, near his home, and was afterwards at private schools at Chester, kept by the Rev. Mr. Vanburgh and the Rev. Mr. Winfield. He was not at Rugby, as often asserted, the Rowland Hill on the school register at that period being a cousin, Rowland Alleyne Hill, who died in holy orders in 1844.

Rowland Hill is described as a big, good-natured boy, chiefly remarkable for his love of gardening and pet animals. When he left school at Chester his friends proposed that he should enter the legal profession, but he chose the army, as also did four of his brothers: John, sometime an officer in the blues and 25th light dragoons, who died in 1814; Robert Chambre, colonel, knight, and C.B., who died in 1860; Clement, in the blues, who was his brother's aide-de-camp in the Peninsula and at Waterloo, and died a major-general (on the Madras staff) and C.B. in 1845; and Thomas Noel.

Rowland was appointed ensign on 21 July 1790 in the 38th (Staffordshire) foot, then in Ireland, and obtained leave to study at the military school at Strasburg until the end of the year. Having brought twelve recruits from home he was promoted lieutenant on 24 January 1791 in the independent company of foot commanded by Captain Broughton (afterwards Lieutenant-general Sir James Delves Broughton, bart.), quartered at Wrotham, Kent, and on 16 March following was transferred to the 53rd (Shropshire) foot, with leave to resume his studies at Strasburg. The threatening state of affairs on the continent drove him home again, and on 18 January 1792 he joined his regiment, and was quartered at Edinburgh and Ayr until the end of 1792.

For some months he was in charge of a small detachment at Ballantrae. Having raised men for an independent company Hill was gazetted captain 23 March 1793. His company was passed into the service at Chatham by General Fox, and ordered to Cork, where Hill was directed to hand it over to the 38th foot at Belfast. He next accompanied Mr. Drake, who on 13 July 1793 was appointed minister plenipotentiary to the republic of Genoa, in the capacity of assistant secretary, and while in Genoa obtained leave to accompany the expedition proceeding to Toulon, where he served as aide-de-camp successively to Generals Lord Mulgrave, O'Hara, and David Dundas, from all of whom he won golden opinions.

On 13 December 1793 he set out from Toulon with despatches for home, reporting himself on the way to the Duke of York at Ghent. In the meantime Hill had been brought in as captain to the regiment, afterwards known as the 86th (Royal County Down) foot, then being raised at Shrewsbury under the name of Colonel Cornelius Cuyler's Shropshire volunteers. Among those who had been favourably impressed with young Hill's bearing at Toulon was Thomas Graham of Balgowan, afterwards Lord Lynedoch, who obtained a majority for him in his new corps of Perthshire volunteers, which became the 90th foot. Hill was appointed major in the 90th foot on 10 February, and lieutenant-colonel 13 May 1794. He was with the regiment at Isle Dieu, under General John Doyle, in September 1795, and afterwards at Southampton, where the 90th was under orders for St. Domingo. The regiment was counter-ordered to Gibraltar, whither Hill accompanied it, and served in that garrison in 1796-8, and at the reduction of Minorca in 1798. He obtained home leave from Minorca in May 1799, leaving Kenneth Mackenzie, afterwards Sir Kenneth Douglas, bart., in command.

Hill, who became a brevet-colonel 1 January 1800, subsequently obtained permission to accompany Drake on a diplomatic mission to Switzerland, intending to rejoin his corps by way of Italy. Hearing, however, that the 90th had been ordered on active service he embarked straight for Gibraltar, rejoined the 90th off Leghorn, and commanded the regiment in the demonstration against Cadiz, in Malta, and in the expedition to Egypt in 1801. On 13 March 1801, during Abercromby's advance from Aboukir towards Alexandria, the 90th and 92nd highlanders, forming the advance of the army, were very hotly engaged in front of Mandora Tower, and greatly distinguished themselves. The 90th was equipped as light infantry, and, according to Hill, worked by the bugle-horn. Hill was struck down early in the fight by a musket-ball. He was carried on board the Foudroyant flagship, and berthed in the cabin into which Abercromby was brought to die after the action of 21 March.

While on board the flagship Hill was visited by the Turkish capitan pasha, who presented him with a jewelled sword and other gifts. He rejoined the 90th at El Hamed on 13 April 1801, and commanded the regiment in the advance upon, and at the surrender of Cairo, and at the siege and capitulation of Alexandria. Under his command the 90th left Egypt for Malta 21 October 1801, and returned home early in 1802. After sojourning at Chatham and Chelmsford the 90th was ordered to Fort George, Inverness-shire, to be disbanded. War alarms saved it from that fate, and in March 1803 the regiment was removed to Belfast, where Hill was made a brigadier-general with a command at Loughrea. He held commands at Loughrea and Galway until his promotion to major-general 30 October 1805. Under Hill's strict but always considerate rule the 90th had been a particularly well-ordered corps. Among the improvements introduced in the regiment by him were a regimental school and a separate mess for the sergeants, then a novelty. His Connaught command was equally a success. The time was an anxious one; the enemy's fleet, afterwards destroyed at Trafalgar, was yet at large, small invasion panics were incessant, and there was much irregularity among the volunteer corps then existing, and a tendency in some quarters to represent every disturbance at wake or fair as the beginning of a fresh insurrection. Hill's firmness and quiet bonhomie well fitted him for his post, and his public services were heartily acknowledged by the ‘Amicable Society’ of Galway, of which he had been elected chairman, and other residents in a complimentary address presented to him on his departure.

He commanded a brigade in the Hanover expedition in December 1805, and with the part of his brigade which escaped shipwreck was quartered at Bremer Lee. When the tidings of Austerlitz caused the troops to be withdrawn from the continent Hill held brigade commands at Brabourne Lees and at Shorncliffe. In 1807 he was in command at Fermoy, where, as in his previous Irish command, much of his time was employed in training the brigaded light companies of the Irish militia in light maneuvres. In 1808 Hill commanded a brigade in the force sent to Portugal under Lieutenant-general Sir Arthur Wellesley, with which he fought at Roliça (Roleia) and Vimeiro. When Wellesley returned home Hill remained in Portugal. He commanded a brigade in the division under the Hon. John Hope, afterwards first Earl of Hopetoun, during Moore's campaign in Spain. His brigade, reformed of battalions of the 1st royals, 5th, 14th, and 32nd regiments, was the last to embark at Corunna. The people of Plymouth presented Hill with an address in recognition of his active efforts on behalf of the sick and wounded of his own and other brigades landed there. A letter from Lord Castlereagh, dated 12 March 1809, sent him back to Portugal to put himself under the orders of Sir John Francis Cradock (afterwards Caradoc), and when Sir Arthur Wellesley returned and took over Cradock's command Hill commanded a brigade in the operations against Oporto, which drove Soult out of Portugal.

When General Edward Paget was wounded Hill succeeded to the second division, and commanded it at the battle of Talavera, 27-8 July 1809, when he was himself wounded. The composition of Hill's division, with headquarters at Montijo, November 1809, is given in Wellington's ‘Supplementary Despatches,’ xiii. 374. In January 1810 Hill commanded a detached corps (including his own division), and was entrusted with the defence of the Portuguese frontier between the Guadiana and Tagus. He co-operated with Lord Wellington in the campaign of that year, and rendered important service, although not actually engaged, at the battle of Busaco, 27 September 1810. In December a severe attack of malarial fever sent him to Lisbon, and eventually to England.

Wellington gave Hill's command to Beresford, and sent him to invest Badajoz, while he endeavoured to bar Marmont's progress towards Beira. After a few months at home Hill recovered his health, and resumed his command on 23 May 1811, just a week after Beresford's desperate fight at Albuhera, to the general rejoicing of the army. A letter from Beresford on the subject of Hill's separate command is given in Wellington's ‘Supplementary Despatches’. When Wellington invested Ciudad Rodrigo, Hill was left in the Alemtejo with the second and fourth divisions and a brigade of cavalry, and received injunctions to fall on the French general Gerard, who had collected some troops at Merida. In Wellington's words, Hill ‘did the work handsomely. Learning that Gerard was at Arroyodos-Molinos, Hill, by forced marches in execrable weather, got within three miles of the French without their knowledge. At daybreak on 28 October 1811 he formed up within two hundred yards of their sentries, surprised the troops on parade, took General Brun, the Prince d'Aremberg, and other officers of rank, and thirteen hundred other prisoners, three guns, all the camp equipage and stores, and put the rest of the force to rout. Ciudad Rodrigo fell in January 1812, and when Wellington turned his attention to Badajoz, Hill intended to attack the French works covering the bridge over the Tagus and Almaraz. The project was, however, postponed, and Hill, who had been promoted to the rank of lieutenant-general 1 January 1812, remained with his corps in the neighbourhood of Badajoz, and in communication with the corps under Thomas Graham.

At Lord Wellington's headquarters at Elvas, on 10 March 1812, Hill was invested with the red ribbon of the Bath, which Wellington had asked for him two years before. After the fall of Badajoz, Hill, with 6,000 men, gallantly stormed the works of Almaraz on 19 May 1812. He was himself wounded. Fortuitous circumstances rendered the success less complete than was expected. When Wellington attacked Burgos, Hill, with thirty thousand of Wellington's best troops and ten thousand Spaniards, was on the line of the Tagus, in communication with Madrid. On Wellington's retreat from Burgos, Hill retired towards the frontier of Portugal, eventually going into quarters at Coria, where his division passed the winter of 1812-13. At the dissolution of parliament in 1812 the Hon. William Noel Hill, afterwards Lord Berwick, decided to retire from the representation of Shrewsbury. Sir Rowland Hill's family procured his return for the borough at the general election which followed, and he retained his seat until elevated to the peerage. Wellington prepared his final advance in the spring of 1813. Hill's corps formed the right of the allied army, and had a prominent share in the subsequent successes, which led the allies victorious from the Tagus to the Garonne. Hill commanded the right of the army at the great battle of Vittoria, 21 June 1813, which began with an attack by one of Hill's brigades on the height of La Puebla, and ended with the utter rout of the French armies under Jourdan and Joseph Bonaparte. He was entrusted with the blockade of Pampeluna, and for months withstood the determined attempts of the enemy to dislodge him from his Pyrenean fastnesses. When the allied army was reorganised on French soil, in three army corps under Hill, Beresford, and Hope, the right was assigned to Hill, with the second and fourth British and a Portuguese division and Mina's and Murillo's corps of Spaniards attached. Hill rendered important services at the battle of Nivelle, 10 November 1813, when Soult's triple line of defences was stormed, and in the operations on the Nive in the following month. On 13 December 1813, the last day of the fighting at the Nive, the French attacked him in great force from the entrenched camp before Bayonne. Hill, unaided, gave them what Wellington, in characteristic phrase, declared to be the soundest thrashing they ever had. He rendered valuable service at the battle of Orthez, by the passage of the Gave and capture of the town of Aire, 3 March 1814, and at the final battle on 10-11 April 1814 before Toulouse, where he was left in command after Wellington went to Paris.

After the close of the war Hill, like his comrades Beresford, Stapleton Cotton, Graham, and Hope, was raised to the peerage. On 17 May 1814 he was created Baron Hill of Almaraz and Hawkstone, afterwards changed to Almaraz and Hardwicke, Hardwicke Grange being a small property near Shrewsbury left him by his uncle, Sir Richard Hill, second baronet of Hawkstone. He was awarded a pension of £2,000 a year. Wellington recommended him for the governorship of Gibraltar, which Beresford had refused. There was also an idea of putting him at the head of a projected expedition to America, which was abandoned. Consulted by Lord Bathurst on the point the Duke of Wellington recommended Sir John Hope in the first place; but in case of Hope's probable refusal he nominated Hill as ‘the most eligible, but I am not quite sure that he does not shrink from responsibility’.

Hill's columnLord Hill's Column, Shrewsbury

Hill returned from France, and met with an enthusiastic reception in London and in his native county. He received the thanks of parliament and the freedom of the city of London. A memorial, known as Lord Hill's column, a Doric column 133 feet high surmounted by a statue, was erected beside the London Road, Shrewsbury, by county subscription, at a cost of £6,000. Hill was offered the command in Scotland, which he declined. When the news came of the return from Elba, Hill was on a visit to London with one of his sisters, and was despatched by the cabinet at a few hours' notice to urge upon the Prince of Orange to keep his troops (which included a British contingent) out of harm's way until larger forces could be massed on the frontier. Hill arrived in Brussels on 1 April 1815, and was followed by Wellington three days afterwards. The troops in the Netherlands were rapidly formed in two large army corps, the command of one being given to the Prince of Orange, and that of the second to Lord Hill. Hill's command included the 2nd and 4th British divisions, with the artillery attached, a cavalry brigade of the king's German legion, the Dutch-Indian contingent, and a Dutch-Belgian division of all arms under Prince Frederick of the Netherlands. Some Hanoverian landwehr brigades were added.

Hill's headquarters were at Grammont. He was with his command on the night of the famous ball at Brussels. The movements of his troops on the days of the fighting at Quatre Bras and Ligny are detailed by Gurwood, ‘Wellington Despatches,’. At Waterloo Hill's corps was posted on the right of the Nivelle road, about Merke Braine, the brigades actually engaged being Adam's light brigade (52nd, 71st, and rifles), near which Hill was during the greater part of the day, Mitchell's (14th, 23rd, and 51st), and Duplat's brigade of the king's German legion and some Hanoverian landwehr brigades. According to the account of Sir Digby Mackworth, one of his aides-de-camp, when the imperial guards made their last onset, and before the famous charge of Adam's brigade, led by the 52nd under Sir John Colborne, afterwards Lord Seaton, who succeeded to the brigade when Adam was wounded, Hill placed himself at the head of the brigade, which was lying down on the ridge exchanging volleys at half-pistol shot with the imperial guard, but had his horse shot under him and was knocked over and badly contused. For more than half an hour he was lost in the mêlée and believed by his staff to be killed. His horse was afterwards found to have been hit in five places. Hill passed the night with his staff in a small house beside the Brussels road, where they had spent the night before the battle. He advanced with the army to Paris, and commanded the troops which took over the defences in July 1815. ‘I am particularly indebted to General Lord Hill for his assistance and conduct on this as on all other occasions,’ wrote Wellington, in his Waterloo despatch; and when Hill had to go home from Paris on family affairs the duke wrote a sympathetic letter, acknowledging how much he owed to his aid.

Hill returned to France and was second in command of the army of occupation under Wellington, until the final withdrawal of the troops in November 1818. He then retired to his estate at Hardwicke Grange, where he resided for some years, occupying himself with farming a little, hunting, fishing, and shooting in a quiet way. In 1820 the Oxford University conferred on him the honorary degree of D.C.L. In 1821, George IV, with whom he was a great personal favourite, chose him to bear the royal standard at the coronation. He declined the lieutenantship of the ordnance offered to him by Wellington, then master-general, in 1823, and the master-generalship offered him by Lord Goderich in 1827. When the Duke of Wellington became prime minister, Hill, who attained the rank of general 27 May 1825, was appointed to the command of the army (16 February 1828), with the title of ‘general commanding-in-chief,’ which had been used by Lord Amherst, and at one time by the Duke of York. He held the post over fourteen years.

In politics a tory of the old school, Hill abstained from voting on the Reform Bill out of deference to William IV, who desired him to vote for it. But Hill never allowed political or private views to influence him unduly, and his administration of the horse-guards patronage was admitted to be conspicuously fair. The era was one of peace, but the troops abroad and at home were often called on to aid the civil power in the cause of order, and the attitude assumed by the government press towards the military authorities on some occasions, as during the chartist disturbances, and the growing tendency of the House of Commons to intermeddle in army matters, proved pregnant sources of vexation. Failing health at length compelled Hill to resign, when he was succeeded by the Duke of Wellington as commander-in-chief. He was raised to the dignity of a viscount, with remainder to his nephew Sir Rowland Hill, bart., M.P., on 27 September 1842. He retired to his seat at Hardwicke Grange, and died unmarried on 10 December 1842, being buried in Hadnall Church, four miles north-east of Shrewsbury.

Hill divided the greater part of his property (£30,000) among his eleven nephews, and left small annual incomes to the three persons employed in taking charge of the column erected in his honour at Shrewsbury. Rowland (b. 1800), his successor in the title, was the eldest son of his brother John. The second viscount had outlived his father, and had succeeded to the family baronetcy in 1824. He was M.P. for North Shropshire 1832, 1835, 1837, 1841-2, and died 2 January 1875. He married Anne, daughter of Joseph Clegg, by whom he was father of the third viscount (1833-1895).

Hill was a G.C.B. and G.C.H., and had the grand crosses of St. George of Russia (1815), Maria Theresa in Austria (1815), William the Lion in the Netherlands, and the Tower and Sword in Portugal (1812), the Turkish order of the Crescent and Peninsular gold cross and clasps, and the Waterloo medal. He was a commissioner of the Royal Military College and Royal Military Asylum, and a privy councillor (1828). He was colonel successively of the 3rd garrison battalion, the old 94th (Scotch brigade), the 53rd (Shropshire) foot (1817), and the royal horse-guards (1830), and governor in succession of Blackness, Hull, and Plymouth, the latter being the best military government going when Hill succeeded to it on 18 June 1830.

In person Hill was of middle height, inclining to be stout, florid, and having the appearance, as he had all the best qualities, of a plain English country gentleman. There is an excellent likeness of him engraved by Richmond in Sidney's biography, and his portrait was also painted by George Dawe (cf. engraving in Doyle). Gronow (Recollections, i. 188) gives a rough sketch of him, circa 1816, mounted on a small steed the size of a modern polo pony.

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