The life of William Porter Finlay sheds a powerful ray of light on the Victorian way of ruin. That we know as much as we do about this young man is a small miracle, because prior to his arrival in America in 1857, William Porter Finlay survives in only a handful of private letters, press reports, and official documents. Almost everything we know about him relates to his father’s increasingly desperate efforts to marshal the assistance of powerful friends in Whitehall, first to solve the problem of what to do with William, and ultimately to save him from an Indian prison in Calcutta. Yet William’s path stretches with stubborn durability across five continents, beginning in Belfast, Northern Ireland, proceeding to South London, and thence to the Cape of Good Hope, Calcutta, Melbourne, back to Ireland, and, finally, to the United States territories of Kansas, Nebraska, and Utah.
William’s father, Francis Dalzell Finlay, of Adelaide Place, Belfast, and Ballynafeigh Cottage, was the founding proprietor and editor of the Northern Whig, a liberal newspaper committed to catholic emancipation, the extension of manhood suffrage, the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland, and the reform of Irish land and tenancy laws. According his old friend and obituarist, Dr. Henry Montgomery, a non-subscribing Presbyterian minister, the “very private history” of Finlay père,
were it permissible to enter into it, would supply to the young an admirable lesson of indomitable perseverance, noble self-reliance, and unsullied integrity; but on such themes I must not dwell, further than to say, that he was born [on July 12, 1793] of honourable parents, [at Newtownards] in the Ards, County of Down, during the early excitement of the French Revolution—that he lost his father [John Finlay] when only a child—that he owed his nurture and education to the energy of an admirable mother [Jane, née Dalzell], whose declining years it was his pride and privilege to render happy—and that, in very early boyhood, he was apprenticed, as a printer, to the late excellent Samuel Archer, of Belfast, and at once became self-sustaining and independent. In this situation he was employed, in the year 1808, as the Superintendent Printer of The Belfast Magazine, to whose pages the late Dr. [William] Drennan, the late Dr. [William] Tennant, the late John Templeton, and the late John Hancock, were the chief contributors. To those distinguished men, the humble printer’s boy speedily commended himself, by his extraordinary intelligence, accuracy, and love of information…Later [in 1820], Dr. Drennan encouraged him to commence printing on his own account; and, so admirable were his skill, and taste, and accuracy, that he soon raised the typography of Belfast to an equality with that of London.
Prior to the passage of the Reform Act in 1832, the Northern Whig (founded in 1824) was the target of almost continual litigation. Mr. Finlay was regularly prosecuted and fined for press offences, and twice sentenced to three months’ imprisonment. His personal political struggle was costly, but it earned him the respect and friendship of Daniel O’Connell, among numerous other Irish and English Peelite politicians.
In 1830, F. D. Finlay married Marianne, the daughter of the Reverend William Porter, a Presbyterian minister in Newtonlimavady, Co. Derry. Their eldest son William was born on April 20, 1831, and baptized five months later, on September 18, by the minister to the second Presbyterian congregation in Belfast. At least five other sons and a daughter followed, Henry Montgomery, Hamilton Rowan, Francis Dalzell Junior, George Washington, Sinclair, and Mary Georgina.
Up to the time of the Great Famine of 1845–49, Mr. Finlay’s journalistic and political activities were evidently achieving significant progress. Dr. Montgomery explicitly acknowledged
the immense debt of gratitude which the Non-Subscribing Presbyterians of Ireland owe to The Northern Whig, for its open columns and powerful advocacy, from the year 1827, until the passing of “The Dissenters’ Chapels Bill,” in the year 1844. Our conflicts have ended—the unhappy spirit which they engendered has passed away—I most heartily rejoice in renewed harmony, without the sacrifice of principle on either side—and I have only referred to past disagreements in justice to the memory of a departed friend.
Those disagreements were apparently at times heated.
Nature gave him a warm temper, which often led him to use strong and exaggerated expressions; but, so universal was the conviction of his substantial honesty and kindness of heart, and so rapidly did his temporary irritation pass away, that all was soon forgotten on both sides; and many whom he hastily blamed lived as his sincerest friends, and now most heartily lament his loss. In honest truth, his many good and high qualities were firm and stable as our mountains on their base, whilst his failings were merely as the vapours which float around their summits for a moment, and are seen no more.
Reading between Dr. Montgomery’s garrulous, rather hastily-drafted lines—“I only regret that an hour’s warning has rendered this imperfect notice so inadequate to my own estimate of the worth, labours, and the services, of Francis Dalzell Finlay, my early and valued friend!”—one detects numerous, not particularly well-concealed hints of trouble.
He saw, or thought he saw, quite clearly, the plain and honest path, and therefore became impatient with those whose vision was less distinct: he perceived an end to be desirable, and was frequently offended by those who disputed the soundness of the means by which he sought to attain it. On these grounds, he was sometimes displeased with myself, and others of his sincerest friends; but these small disagreements, occasionally resulting in temporary estrangements, never caused me to forget, even for one moment, his genuine warmth of heart, his honest patriotism, his high integrity in all the transactions of the world, and the incalculable services which, “through good report and bad report,” he had rendered to the cause of human happiness and liberty, but his noble energies and sacrifices.
Putting aside the leaden tact with which Dr. Montgomery catalogued for the readers of the Northern Whig the various shortcomings of its late proprietor, the better to underline his many virtues, it is striking that apart from the fact that the newspaper was bequeathed to his (third?) son and namesake, no other mention is made of Mr. Finlay’s wife and children.
By the mid-1840s, Mr. Finlay’s mind evidently turned to the question of what to do with his eldest son. At first William attended the non-denominational Belfast College (that is, the Belfast Academical Institution), of which Mr. Finlay’s boyhood patron Dr. Drennan had been a co-founder in 1810—describing its aim as to “diffuse useful knowledge, particularly among the middling orders of society.” Prior to the establishment of the Queen’s University in 1845, Belfast College served as both a grammar school and the nearest thing to a university that yet existed in Ulster.
At length, Mr. Finlay decided that William should join the army. To that end, in 1846 he was entrusted to Messrs. Stoton and Mayor of Wimbledon in South London. He was fifteen. Almost the sole purpose of this large preparatory school was to teach mathematics to those boys intending to seek commissions in the Indian Army, and classics to those who aspired to continue on to Haileybury and afterwards the Indian Civil Service.
Anthony Vandyke Copley Fielding gave ad hoc drawing classes to some of the boys, and a small, elderly, enormously-despised Parisian, Monsieur Dell, attempted to teach French, although Mr. Stoton pointedly allowed no prize to be awarded in that subject. In 1841 the boys washed their hands and faces once a day in communal lead sinks in a squalid room on the ground floor. They were remembered as a crowd of “sneering John Bulls.” This was the environment in which for two years William Porter Finlay made his way.
In May 1848, not long after his seventeenth birthday William was awarded a cadetship at the Honourable East India Company’s Military Seminary, Addiscombe College, near Croydon. His examination paper and other entry documents survive, according to which it was stated by Messrs. Stoton and Mayor that William “has been under our care and instruction since July 1846, that he has attended to his studies with a creditable degree of industry and perseverance, and that his general conduct has been orderly, obedient, and gentlemanly.”
It was further certified by two doctors that William had either had the Small-Pox, or had been vaccinated. He agreed that he had been furnished with the Articles of War, the regulations of the seminary, and important information about his future pension arrangements. He was also aware that, should he omit to insure his passage and outfit, he could not make any claim for indemnification. While at Addiscombe, in case of any medical or other emergency William French, Esq., chronometer-maker of No. 9, The Royal Exchange, or in his absence Robert Allison, Esq., patent pianoforte manufacturer of 75, Dean Street, Soho, stood ready to receive William in loco parentis.
Finally, William stated that neither to his or his father’s knowledge had his appointment been obtained in return for money or any other “pecuniary or valuable consideration,” and should it ever be determined that it had been obtained by such improper means he would be dismissed and rendered permanently ineligible to hold any other situation in the service of the East India Company. As we shall see, this disclaimer was not particularly unusual in turning a blind eye to the otherwise thrumming machinery set in train by Victorian networks of patronage.
In fact, William’s place was obtained through the support of two cabinet ministers in the first administration of Lord John Russell, both of whom had strong Anglo-Irish connections. George Howard, Viscount Morpeth (later seventh Earl of Carlisle), had been Chief Secretary for Ireland from 1835 to 1841, and was currently First Commissioner of Woods, Forests, Land Revenues, Works, and Buildings. Sir John Cam Hobhouse, the radical Member of Parliament, sometime executor of Lord Byron, and former Chief Secretary for Ireland (1833) was by now, conveniently, President of the Board of Control for India. The signatures of both men appear on the applicant’s “humble petition” to enter Addiscombe’s Season 18.
To all of this William signed his full name, in a firm confident hand—very similar to, but conspicuously larger than his father’s.
Many published reminiscences attest to the combination of mischief, insubordination, and general chaos that seems to have characterised life at Addiscombe. “The course of education,” wrote Major William Broadfoot, R.E., “consisting of Cape’s Mathematics, tempered with obsolete fortification, with Hindustani taught by a person who had never heard it spoken, and with such trifles as drawing, French and Latin, is fairly termed a race decided by mathematics.” Living in what were known as “kennels,” the cadets routinely forged invitations to evening entertainments so as to escape to an out-of-bounds pub in Croydon where they drank and smoked in peace, and picked fights with the locals. When forgeries came under suspicion, the cadets simply bribed the N.C.O.s to keep their mouths shut. In fact, tobacco—how to get and smoke it—appears to have been the main occupation of the Addiscombe cadets. Few if any read their standard-issue copies of Caesar’s Commentaries. In 1851 a small detachment gained free entry to the Crystal Palace by pretending to mount a guard of honor. They marched straight past the ticket booth.
In 1850, William Porter Finlay was rusticated or suspended for a period of two terms, lasting until February 1851, and it was evidently necessary for his father to come to London and escort him back to Belfast. We do not know what he did to deserve the punishment, but later events suggest that he probably got into a fight. Certainly, he must have risen through the full and daunting range of disciplinary measures available to the N.C.O.s and senior officers at Addiscombe, including solitary confinement. Most if not all of these were worn with pride by the cadets, but rustication meant disgrace.
At first, Mr. Finlay seems to have toyed with the idea of appealing to Addiscombe to allow the cadetship fees to be transferred to the account of William’s younger brother Henry, a future major-general of the Madras artillery, in effect permanently to substitute Henry for William. Although that idea recurs in the increasingly distressed letters Mr. Finlay addressed to his principal contact in London, Mr. Clarke of Military Department of the East India Company, eventually through the direct intervention of the Anglo-Irish Peelite Member of Parliament and chairman of the East India Company, Sir James Hogg, William Porter Finlay was in February 1851 reinstated at Addiscombe. His father brought him back to London. There is a palpable sense of relief in the short letter Francis Dalzell Finlay wrote to Mr. Clarke before setting off back to Northern Ireland:
25, Cecil StreetStrandFeb. 13. 1851My dear Sir,Before leaving London, will you permit me to discharge a duty I owe:— it is to express, in the warmest manner I can, the deep sense of my gratitude to you, for the kind, paternal, and affectionate manner in which you have acted towards my wayward child. I shall ever entertain a lively sense of your disinterested services; and so entreat my son.I am, my dear Sir,Your ever obliged and grateful servant,F. D. FinlayJ. R. Clarke, Esq.
Clearly Mr. Finlay felt that a line had been drawn under the whole episode. Unfortunately, less than three weeks after he reached Belfast, William was in serious trouble again. This time he was expelled.
Northern Whig Office,Belfast, March 5. 1851.My dear Mr. Clarke,Is not this an awful end to all your troubles and mine?—after what you did to assist me; after the goodness shewed by Sir James Hogg; and the extraordinary leniency of the [Addiscombe] Board,—that the end of all should be my son’s last downfall!—Colonel [Frederick] Abbott [lieutenant-governor, i.e. principal of Addiscombe, and a veteran of the Afghan War] wrote me a most flattering account of him on Saturday; and, next day, he got into a row at Croydon, and, of course, is now finally dismissed.It has levelled me to the dust!—It has broken my heart! I have received a letter from Sir James Hogg, with Colonel Abbott’s report. But, my son has not yet written to me. He need not turn his feet homeward; for he will not be received here, after all we have endured with him.I know not what he will now do. I fear he is lost to all good. God save him: I can do no more.When you know anything about his proceedings, will you have the kindness to let me know.I must now, at once, proceed to get the transfer of the cadetship made to another son. Will the Board allow me the £50 I paid for William, do you think?—I am so distressed, I know not what I write.—But, I never can cease to think of your kindness and consideration.I am, my dear Mr. Clarke,Your ever grateful and obliged,F. D. FinlayJ. R. Clarke, Esq.Military DepartmentIndia House
Mr. Clarke evidently wrote back straight away, encouraging Mr. Finlay to proceed with the idea of substituting Henry at Addiscombe.
Northern Whig Office,Belfast, March 10th. 1851.My dear Mr. Clarke,Your very kind letter has just reached me. I know nothing of what has become of my unfortunate son. He has not gone near either Mr. French or Mr. Allison; and I suppose he is on the streets of London. It is a melancholy end to all my cares, my hopes, and my aspirations. He has struck me down, broken-hearted.I have, this day, enclosed a Memorial to Sir James Hogg, for the Board; praying them to withdraw William’s name, and to substitute Henry’s. Also, to allow the payment for this term to stand to Henry’s credit.I hope the Board may be induced to accede to this prayer, under my afflicting circumstances.For all your kindness, be good enough to accept of a poor parent’s blessing.I am, my dear Mr. Clarke,Your ever obliged, & grateful,F. D. FinlayJ. R. Clarke, Esq.&c. &c. &c.
William Porter Finlay was unlucky that towards the end of his cadetship there was a change in leadership at Addiscombe. Major-General Sir Ephraim Stannus, an ancient veteran of the Pindari War of 1817–18, had been lieutenant-governor of the college from 1834 until his death in October 1850. Despite his regular outbursts of incandescent rage Stannus was actually a lax disciplinarian, a poor administrator, and an even worse educator of young men. All this changed when Colonel Frederick Abbott took up his appointment at the beginning of 1851. With the reforming zeal of an ambitious new broom, Abbott was at first extremely unpopular with the cadets. They disliked his harsh manner, his taste for discipline, and Mrs. Abbott’s alarming revivalism. William Porter Finlay was evidently one of the Colonel’s earliest casualties. Frederick Sleigh Roberts, William’s exact contemporary, evidently kept his head down, sailed into the Bengal Artillery as a second lieutenant in December 1851, and gradually evolved into Field Marshal the Right Hon. Earl Roberts of Kandahar, V.C., K.G., K.P., G.C.B., O.M., G.C.S.I., G.C.I.E., P.C. A national hero, after his death in November 1914 Lord Roberts lay in state in Westminster Hall and was buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral.
The path William trod was, if anything, even more peripatetic than Roberts’, but by what route he made his way from the dangerous streets of London into the ordinary ranks of the British Army; thence to the Cape of Good Hope; on to Calcutta, and afterwards to Australia we know very little, because the only information about the next two years of his life is contained in a letter of introduction which, together with an astonishing enclosure, plopped onto the desk of the Anglo-Irishman John Leslie Fitzgerald Vesey Foster in Melbourne.
William Porter Finlay sailed from Calcutta aboard the 268-ton brig Teak and arrived at Hobson’s Bay on May 23, 1854: “Passengers—cabin: Messrs. William Porter Finlay, A. and A. Lagioginneas, and three Chinese in the steerage” (Argus, May 24, 1854, p. 4). The letter William delivered soon afterwards to the Victorian Government Offices was addressed in December 1853 to Lieutenant-Governor Charles La Trobe by Henry Pelham-Clinton, fifth Duke of Newcastle, Secretary of State for the Colonies and for War in the coalition government of the Earl of Aberdeen.
The Duke’s surviving correspondence reveals a daunting array of problems flowing incessantly into Downing Street from distant colonies. Much assisted by his hard-working private secretary, Henry Roberts (no relation), a stalwart veteran of the Colonial Office, the Duke solved many of the minor ones by keeping track of numerous vacancies, collating extraordinary quantities of information, and matching sometimes difficult, inconvenient, or indeed unfortunate but deserving people to what His Grace clearly regarded as absurdly isolated places.
Was the position of commissioner of police in Mauritius still vacant, and what was the salary? Why was Mr. Huskisson continuing to draw a pension, when his dismissal from the civil service of Ceylon was judged necessary as long as fourteen years ago? How might the “Irish element” affect the appointment of the bishop of a new Church of England diocese in Upper Canada (Ontario), and what lay behind private warnings that Mr. Hincks had a better claim to that see than Mr. Bethune?
Some colonial administrators were better than others at providing helpful answers to questions of this kind, or even understanding what lay behind them. Yet the flow of correspondence operated simultaneously as an effective network of patronage, and as a useful, comprehensive, and surprisingly effective intelligence-gathering system. Part of its genius was that there was simply no need for spies.
Writing to Lord Elgin, the Governor-General of Canada, Mr. Welch of Wiltshire complained that the policy of granting to retired army officers plots of land in certain colonies “at minimal cost” was not also extended to officers of the Indian Army. Why had the scheme been taken up in Van Diemen’s Land, when that penal colony was obviously no place to raise a family? Understandably perplexed—who was Mr. Welch?—Lord Elgin referred the matter to the Duke of Newcastle, who patiently explained his predecessor Lord Grey’s purpose in excluding officers of the East India Company. They had their own pension arrangements. Nevertheless he promised to consider making an exception in the case of those officers now wishing to settle in the Cape of Good Hope—where they were obviously needed. Satisfactorily the Duke could also report that Transportation to Van Diemen’s Land was about to be abolished.
Meanwhile, copies of a brisk exchange of letters between the Governor and Commander-in-Chief of the Cape Colony, Sir George Cathcart, and his attorney-general the Hon. William Porter mysteriously found its way onto the Duke’s desk, apparently not part of any official despatch. Sir George proposed to detain four rebel prisoners at Fort Beaufort in the Eastern Cape until “the [Kaffir] war be manifestly brought to a conclusion.” Mr. Porter found it necessary to set out for Sir George—almost in words of one syllable (over eight dense pages)—the basic legal problem of holding prisoners without trial. This exchange obviously shed considerable light on the strengths and limitations of each man. Not surprisingly, a little over two years later Sir George, the soldier and ruthless man of action, was placed in command of the Fourth Division of the British Army in the Crimea, with a dormant commission to succeed Lord Raglan in the event of his death or incapacity. On November 5, 1854, Sir George was shot through the heart during the Battle of Inkerman. Mr. Porter stayed at his post in Cape Town.
What is most intriguing in the present context is that the Hon. William Porter was the affectionate older brother of Marianne, the mother of William Porter Finlay.
We do not know if after his expulsion from Addiscombe the family sought to exploit this relationship for the younger William’s benefit, but it seems likely that uncle and nephew were at least in touch with one another at some point, if not when William first disembarked at the Cape then presumably some time after December 1852 when he was apparently fighting creditably in skirmishes with the Xhosa along the Kei River in the Eastern Cape. His campaign medal survives in a private collection in South Africa, and we do not know when or how William parted with it. Given his misfortune at the hands of Colonel Abbott, and notwithstanding his campaign medal for active service in the Eastern Cape, it would seem have been awesomely difficult for William to get himself transferred to the Indian Army in Calcutta without the assistance of some at least beneficent but presumably also well-connected advocate in Cape Town. The logistical upheavals arising from the outbreak of the Crimean War offered British officials everywhere some justification for overlooking peccadilloes. In any event, Uncle William Porter enjoyed the advantage not merely of being a lawyer, and a fairly enlightened one, but as attorney-general of being the ranking law officer at the Cape, ideally placed to argue his nephew’s case before the military authorities. Incidentally, the attorney-general happens also to have shared the whole extent of his private life with an intimate friend named Hugh Lynar, undisturbed by even the hint of scandal, a not particularly unusual but rarely observed and distinctly homo-social aspect of British colonial life.
The document which William delivered to the Government Offices in Melbourne eighteen months later, in late May or June 1854, consists of one of the hundreds of printed, covering form-letters which successive secretaries of state issued in Whitehall to outbound emigrants, usually on the recommendation of a Member of Parliament, a suffragan bishop, a provincial magistrate, a rear-admiral long consigned to the retired list, a marginally well-connected peeress, or some other third party. Spaces in the document were reserved in which to add the relevant particulars (given here in italics):
Colonial OfficeDowning Street6th December 1853Sir,This Letter will be presented to you by Mr. Finlay who is proceeding to Victoria. He has been recommended to me by The Right Honble. Sir James Graham, Bart., a copy of whose private letter respecting this young man I enclose confidentially for your individual perusal at whose request I write this Letter. It cannot however be too distinctly understood, that I do not by this introduction, design to fetter in the slightest degree your discretion in the choice of Candidates for employment in the Public Service.I remain, Sir,Yours very faithfully,NewcastleLieutenant-Governor of Victoria
Sir James Graham, another Peelite cabinet minister, was First Lord of the Admiralty in the Aberdeen government.
By the time William arrived in Melbourne La Trobe had departed (aboard The Golden Age, on May 6, 1854), and the new Governor, Sir Charles Hotham, had not yet arrived (aboard The Queen of the South, on June 21), so it fell to “Alphabetical” Foster, as he was acerbically known, to decide what to do with the young man who stood before him. Since the previous September (1853) Foster had been colonial secretary, in effect the lieutenant-governor’s chief minister, and was for the time being the colony’s administrator.
Prior to the arrival of a viable overland telegraph cable (1872) civil servants in Melbourne were well accustomed to reading and attempting to act upon official despatches from the Colonial Office in London, many of which bore little or no relation to real conditions in Victoria, more often than not because they were hopelessly out-of-date. The most recently broken record for a voyage from Plymouth to Melbourne and back again was still between five and six months, so timely administrative interventions from Downing Street were impossible. The men on the ground were also besieged with numerous, less time-sensitive letters of introduction, polite appeals for assistance, and discreet claims to patronage and preferment—notwithstanding that ostentatious, but entirely unreal disclaimer at the bottom of the form-letter—far more than they were able to accommodate.
However, few if any petitioners ever sought to urge upon a colonial official the course of action here endorsed by such a formidable assembly of powerful cabinet ministers and other men of rank as Sir James Graham skilfully orchestrated in the letter he wrote to the Colonial Secretary about William Porter Finlay.
Evidently leaving nothing to chance, Mr. Roberts prudently noted at the top of the sheet: “The Duke of Newcastle requests that this copy of Sir James Graham’s letter may be considered as confidential.” Maybe Roberts was better able than his master to imagine the dismay its contents might cause to the recipient in Melbourne:
Private Admiralty6th December, 1853My dear Duke,Mr. Finlay, the Editor of the Northern Whig, has brought under my notice the case of his son, who under circumstances of extenuation was convicted of a Homicide at Calcutta. He was a young man of great military promise, having fought well at the Cape, indeed only too fond of fighting which has been his infirmity. By this unlucky event his prospects in India are ruined, and his father is most unhappy and perplexed as to what he can do for him. [Abraham] Brewster [Attorney-General of Ireland in the Aberdeen cabinet] has recommended this case specially to my attention; and Mr. Finlay is an old friend of Sir James Hogg’s [chairman of the East India Company] and [he] is most anxious that some assistance should be given for the father’s sake. Sir Laurence Peel, the Chief Justice [of Bengal] who tried the young man, and who passed sentence upon him, has written a letter to the father, which he [presumably Mr. Finlay, back in London] will show to you; and Sir Laurence has visited the young man in prison and takes the most benevolent interest in his future welfare.If you would kindly take into your consideration all the circumstances of this case, which are peculiar, and permit a letter of introduction to be written in favour of the youth to the Governor of Victoria, he might obtain a Commission in the Police Force about to be raised in that colony. You will do a kindness, which I believe you will not have reason to regret, and I shall be obliged on account of a Parent whose misfortune I have pitied.I am &c.Jas. Graham
The first and perhaps most puzzling point arising from this amazing letter is chronological. Between March 1851, when he was not yet twenty, and December 1853, when he was still only twenty-two and a half, William Porter Finlay evidently managed to get himself expelled from Addiscombe; join the Army as an ordinary soldier, perhaps in the Seventy-Third Regiment of Foot; sail to South Africa; fight creditably in at least part of the Eighth Kaffir, Cape Frontier, or Xhosa War (1851–53); sail from Cape Town to Calcutta; volunteer for service in the army of the Hon. East India Company, and kill somebody. The circumstances of this catastrophe, which obviously reduced to insignificance the earlier crises over William’s conduct at Addiscombe, were reported in London in typically Victorian detail in Allen’s Indian Mail, and Register of Intelligence, on Tuesday, February 15, 1853:
Affray with the Natives.—We have received some authentic particulars of a very unfortunate affair, which occurred the immediate neighbourhood of Calcutta on Monday evening, Dec. 28, and which is likely to lead to the trial of three military officers for homicide. About half-past eight that evening three young cadets, Walter Nugent, Hardress Waller, and J. J. Boswell, with a young man of the name of Findlay [sic], residing at Dum Dum, drove from Cox’s bungalow towards Calcutta in two buggies, having three guns with them. Messrs. Findlay and Boswell pulled up at the telegraph tower just beyond Chitpore, and got out to have a shot at a pariah dog. They fixed at it in front of Seboo Baboo’s house, the residence of the Ranee Kutteanee. The durwans remonstrated with them for doing so, probably not very civilly, and there was some altercation. Mr. Nugent and Mr. Waller then came up, and the four gentlemen, three of them with guns in their hands, endeavoured to force their way into the house. Then they were met by the durwans and servants armed with swords and lattees, who drove them back. They fired one or two shots in the air to frighten the people; but the latter still followed, and, as the prisoners say, attacked them with swords and bamboos, and Mr. Findlay at length fired and shot a durwan of the name of Zalim Sing in the leg, inflicting such a wound that the man died on the spot very shortly afterwards. Mr. Waller and Mr. Nugent were conveyed to the Chitpore Thanna by the constable. Mr. Findlay and Mr. Boswell drove at a gallop up the Chitpore road, and escaped for the time, but Mr. Boswell gave himself up to the Calcutta Police in the course of the night, and Mr. Findlay was captured in a field near Dum Dum by two of the 24 Pergunnahs constables in the course of the day. The three former gentlemen have been released on bail after a number of depositions had been taken at Allipore, and Mr. Findlay remains at the Allipore jail. The case will be resumed at the magistrate's cutcherry, Allipore, to-day at one P.M.—Hurkaru.We believe the case of the cadets accused of implication in an homicide has not yet been disposed of by the magistrate of the 24 Pergunnahs. According to the latest accounts we have received, the native witnesses were unable to identify the accused, or to distinguish the one who shot the man.—Ibid. Dec. 31.
In due course, William and his friends were tried, and an account of the trial was published on Thursday, March 3, 1853 in the next issue of Allen’s Indian Mail:
The trial of the four young military men for shooting a native at Chitpore came on in the Supreme Court on Jan. 11th last. A succinct account of the affray appeared in the last number of the Indian Mail (page 65). We supply a summary of the report of the trial.William Porter Finlay, a volunteer in the East-India Company’s army, was brought up on an indictment of manslaughter, for having shot one Zalem Singh, the durwan of a house in Barrackpore, and three other prisoners, viz., Hardress Edward Waller, Walter Ruthven Nugent, and John James Boswell, cadets in the Company’s service were indicted for aiding and abetting him in the act. Finlay had remained in custody from the time of the occurrence; the other accused parties had been on bail, but surrendered at the trial, and all four were placed in the dock. The prisoners had been committed by Mr. Samuells, magistrate of the Twenty-four Pergunnahs, on a charge of wilful murder. The Grand Jury, however, had rejected the capital charge.Mr. Finlay is stated to have come to Calcutta from the Cape of Good Hope.Mr. Boswell is a relative of the Rev. R. B. Boswell, chaplain of St James’s church, Calcutta.Mr. Bell (for Mr. Prinsep) and Mr. Peterson appeared for the prosecution, Mr. Ritchie for Ens. Boswell, Mr. Cowie for Ensigns Nugent and Waller, and Mr. Welch for Mr. Finlay.A mass of evidence was elicited from native witnesses, and copies of the examinations of the prisoners before the magistrate were next read. After which the learned counsel for the defence addressed the jury successively for their respective clients. At the conclusion of the defence the Chief Justice charged the jury at considerable length, and with much care .The jury, at the expiration of an hour, returned a verdict of Guilty against Finlay, and verdicts of Acquittal for the other prisoners, who were accordingly discharged. The young man, Finlay, was sentenced to one year’s imprisonment. The Chief Justice, in passing sentence, observed that he believed Mr. Finlay guiltless in the sight of Heaven of the durwan’s death; that is to say, it was never contemplated by him. The law, however, was bound to protect all persons, and in passing the most lenient sentence which, under the circumstance, he could do, his lordship expressed a hope that Mr. Finlay would yet become a worthy and honourable member of society, and profit by study during his incarceration.We quote the material points of the sentence.—“You,” said his lordship, addressing the prisoner, “stand free in the eye of God of having designed, even under provocation, the full mischief that has resulted from your act. An entire absence of common sense and common care in not attempting to stop the effusion of blood, which might readily have been done by a tight ligature, caused the wound to terminate fatally; but with due care it most probably would have occasioned the loss of the limb. Your defence upon your trial was that you had done this serious mischief in self-defence. But the evidence entirely failed to show that you had attempted to fly to your carriage, and avoid the conflict in which your own original and lawless aggression had involved you.“I do not doubt upon the evidence, that at the time when you fired your gun and inflicted the wound which caused the death of the deceased, you did it under an attack which reasonably caused you to fear danger to your own life. But the original aggression was your own: an entry accompanied by force on premises where you had no right to intrude, and preceded by an assault from Mr. Boswell, though probably a slight one, in one who did no more than his duty in warning him of the impropriety of the course which he was then pursuing. You were all together, three carrying fire-arms, and entered by force these premises. It is true that there is no evidence of any injury having been inflicted by any of you, and probably had such been the case, such evidence would have been produced. It is true also that the retaliation was excessive and illegal. But you should have reflected on the probable consequences of your own aggression. It was your duty, when you saw men armed with swords and lattees, to fly to your carriages and avoid the risk of injury to them, which your stay exposed you to commit. It is my duty to warn you and all others, that an injury by a European to a native, no matter what his degree, is viewed always with the strongest displeasure by the Court. The inferiority in general of a native to an European in strength and courage gives a character of cowardice to an assault by the latter on the former. The law knows no distinction of colour, class, or creed, and in its equal justice, gives to the poorest ryot’s hut a protection no less than that which it gives to the house of the greatest in the land; and any aggression on these persons or their property is not a light aggression. I make all due allowances for your youth, but you are old enough to have reflected on the mischief of such lawless courses. The sentence which I must pass on you, and it is the lightest which my sense of duty will enable me to pass, is that you be imprisoned in the Great Jail of Calcutta for twelve calendar months. And let me give you this counsel. Your offence, though serious, will leave not a lasting stigma on your name. Your past errors are such as the hot blood of youth may lead men into who have in them the seeds of much good. If you, by severe self-examination, see the evils of your past course, and to what they tend, and by study strive to improve the time which you will have to pass in prison, you may prove yet a comfort to your friends, and run an useful and honourable career.”
Such was the majesty of the justice exercised in the Supreme Court of Calcutta by Sir Laurence Peel. Presumably responding to the earliest reports that reached him, Mr. Finlay rushed from Belfast to London and laid William’s predicament before at least one cabinet minister, possibly up to three.
Thanks to the sympathetic response of Sir James Hogg, within five or six months the documents prepared for the Duke of Newcastle by Mr. Roberts had been posted to Calcutta, and handed over to William. He was quietly released from prison, well before the completion of his sentence, and safely despatched to Melbourne aboard the Teak. Leaving aside the question as to whether all this is plausible, was it in fact possible?
Between March 1 and June 25, 1854, eleven emigrant ships sailed from Plymouth to Sydney. The slowest, the China, took 119 days, and the fastest, the Araminta, took only 87. The average duration of the voyage was a fraction more than 98 days, a little more than three months—but to this period one should add another month because dates of embarkation were often delayed for weeks pending the sale of berths, the loading additional cargoes, even a change in the weather. The passages from Plymouth to the Cape of Good Hope; from the Cape to Calcutta (via Mauritius); and from Calcutta to London and back again (carrying the mail), and from Calcutta to Melbourne (via Singapore or Batavia)—each of these obviously took less time than the long passage from Britain to Australia, but, prior to the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, at times not much.
Therefore, allowing for three months between William Porter Finlay’s expulsion from Addiscombe and his departure for South Africa; at least six months’ active service at the Cape, a few months in and around Calcutta; and three months between his arrest for homicide and his release from prison—and allowing for the intervening voyages—the sequence of events is definitely feasible, provided Sir Laurence Peel, a first cousin of the late prime minister, conducted his trials expeditiously.
The tightest and most troublesome chronological bracket is, in fact, the only one that is firmly documented: those last six months separating the letters of Sir James Graham and the Duke of Newcastle (both dated December 6, 1853), and May 23, 1854, when William Porter Finlay disembarked at Port Melbourne. In other words, the sequence of events is not impossible, but the margins are exceedingly narrow, especially given that after the outbreak of the Crimean War in October 1853 every ship except for the famous Great Britain had been withdrawn from the Australian run, and British shipping everywhere else was at best disrupted.
We do not know what Mr. Foster thought about the letter, the weird proposal, or William Porter Finlay himself. Certainly, he had much more serious matters to deal with at this extremely volatile moment in the colony’s history than how to get William a commission in the goldfields police—even though the need in that quarter was great, in fact growing ever greater.
Gold was discovered at Mount Alexander in July 1851, and a licensing system for prospectors came into effect within two months (on September 1). At this date the population of the newly separated colony of Victoria was about 77,400, not including Aborigines, and, prior to the arrival of a relatively small party of reinforcements from New South Wales, the government had at its disposal only 44 soldiers, who were at first fully occupied guarding the gold escorts, the powder magazine, and the gaol in Melbourne. During the first gold rushes it was impossible to recruit policemen, nor indeed to prevent the mass desertion of hundreds of ordinary public servants and private employees of every description. Everyone headed for the diggings, even the crews of in-bound ships, which accumulated in huge numbers, stranded in Hobson’s Bay. A total breakdown of civil authority seemed likely, and was widely feared.
Despite desperate appeals to Downing Street for reinforcements, in 1852 the police were still “so few and corrupt that they were of little use.” In February a dubious party of 130 ageing military pensioners from Van Diemen’s Land was signed on for a year during which time a new force of mounted police consisting of only twelve officers and 250 troopers were trained and equipped. In this emergency anyone who could ride a horse was gratefully accepted into the police force, and many went on to make a comfortable living from theft, extortion, blackmail, or worse. Their job was not merely to keep order at the rapidly multiplying diggings, but to extract licence fees, deal with infringements, and do what little they could to keep the peace.
By 1854, 8,425,700 ounces (more than 235 tons) of what turned out to be extraordinarily high-quality gold had been exported from Melbourne, and approximately two-thirds of the diggers were actually paying their licences, something of a miracle, maybe substantially more if you take into account the fees that were paid but simply pocketed by the police according to the ancient racketeering principle of one-for-me-and-however-many-for-the-government. In three years the population grew to nearly a quarter of a million, much bolstered by seasoned prospectors who sailed hungrily across the Pacific from California.
Gold threw the new colony into disarray, if only by the preposterous flow of people, money and treasure into the local economy, the urgent demands on public expenditure, the dearth of labour, and spiralling prices—all of which coincided with the decision, reached earlier, to introduce parliamentary government. To that end, since September 1853, when he took office as La Trobe’s chief civil servant, Mr. Foster had with his Anglo-Irish cousins William Foster Stawell and Redmond Barry been closely involved with the drafting of a constitution for Victoria. He was a practical man. He knew that the best and most reliable information about the situation on the goldfields was at least six months out-of-date by the time it reached the Duke of Newcastle in London, and that the colony’s situation was not by now so desperate that it should without hesitation issue arms, ammunition, and a commission in the goldfields police to a convicted killer, no matter how well-connected, no matter how urgently the colony needed able-bodied men.
Yet Mr. Foster may also have pondered a curious point arising from the date of the Duke of Newcastle’s letter: December 6, 1853. News of the appointment in London of the famous, well-connected naval officer, Sir Charles Hotham, K.C.B., R.N., as the new Governor of Victoria, reached Melbourne by late February or the middle of March 1854 at the latest, and was the prompt that allowed Charles La Trobe finally to pack his bags and leave, after nearly fifteen years’ uninterrupted service. That appointment was made on the very same day on which the Duke signed his letter of introduction in favour of William Porter Finlay, that is, December 6, 1853, a strange coincidence—yet he nevertheless carefully addressed it to Hotham’s predecessor.
The Duke and Mr. Roberts had every reason to believe that by the time the packet was delivered to Melbourne La Trobe would be long gone, indeed that it ought to reach its final destination via Calcutta at least some considerable time after Sir Charles was in position, and they knew what kind of man he was: rigid and authoritarian, indeed to a large extent it was these qualities that commended his appointment to the Duke in the first place. Could it be that by this neat stratagem, the Duke deliberately sought to steer William in precisely the direction in which he was least likely to encounter sympathetic treatment? And is it possible that Mr. Foster grasped this also, if not at first then fairly soon after Sir Charles’s arrival in Melbourne? It is an intriguing possibility, which Foster’s inaction does nothing to discount.
A final annotation on the folded back of the packet almost certainly proves that, perhaps wisely, Mr. Foster chose to wait at least six months before referring this otherwise delicate, probably insoluble matter to Sir Charles’s private secretary Commander Joseph Kay, R.N. It is possible that William Porter Finlay created such an unfavourable impression that doing nothing at all for as long as possible presented itself to Mr. Foster as the only realistic or even safe option—leaving aside the matter of principle, whether under any circumstances it was right for the First Lord of the Admiralty seriously to propose to offer aid or assistance, let alone employment, to a ruined criminal whose father enjoyed political influence in Whitehall:
Mr. Finlayenclosing a private letter from Sir James Graham given into my hands by Mr. J. FosterDecember, 1854J. H. KayPrivate Secy
Now, the date of this minute coincides almost exactly with the arrival in the colony of the announcement from London that the ministerial responsibilities of the Duke of Newcastle would henceforth be divided, and that a new Colonial Secretary, Sir George Grey, had been appointed. With the Crimea increasingly occupying the Duke’s whole attention in the War Office, any immediate pressure emanating from Downing Street in respect of William Porter Finlay was thankfully lifted. However, what caused the file to be lobbed harmlessly onto the desk of Sir Charles Hotham was Mr. Foster’s forced resignation on December 6, 1854, exactly a year to the day since the Duke issued his letter for William.
Relations between Hotham and Foster had deteriorated steadily since the new Governor took office on June 22. With increasing arrogance Hotham saw himself as the supreme, undisputed imperial authority in Melbourne. His three-fold task was to bring under control the colony’s dizzying public expenditure, which the Colonial Office somehow could not be made to understand was unavoidable; to impose order on the goldfields, which Downing Street seems to have regarded as a relatively simple logistical matter; and, finally, to oversee the introduction of parliamentary government. Instead, high-handedly by-passing his officials, and appealing over their heads to what he considered to be popular sentiment, in record time Sir Charles managed to precipitate the crisis over mining licences and the diggers’ many other grievances that on December 3, 1854, led to the crisis of the Eureka Stockade. Hitherto Hotham had seen to it that Foster and others were blamed for the rising tension, but in the days following Eureka he made sure that the loss of life was laid at their feet also. Foster had to go.
On his side, it is easy to imagine that, whilst clearing his desk, Mr. Foster felt that if anyone deserved to experience a headache arising from the difficult matter of Mr. Finlay, it might as well be His Excellency.
Sir Charles Hotham was fortunate to have as his private secretary in Melbourne a man as able as Joseph Kay. In 1840 Kay had set up the magnetic observatory at Rossbank in Hobart Town, Van Diemen’s Land, and served as its director until 1853, when the Admiralty stopped funding it. Recalled to London, Kay was engaged by Sir Charles immediately prior to his departure for Melbourne; Mrs. Kay would serve as a companion to Lady Hotham, who was a great-niece of Horatio, Viscount Nelson.
We know that Commander Kay’s relations with Hotham were good, and his orderly hand is evident in the alphabetical arrangement, annotation and filing of the many letters of introduction that arrived on the new Governor’s desk after June 1854, including that of William Porter Finlay—an arrangement that is largely preserved to this day in the relevant boxes in the Public Record Office of Victoria. Yet the Kays chose to remain in the colony after Sir Charles’s premature death from a chill in December 1855. Commander Kay was a veteran of colonial life, and Mrs. Kay had actually been born in Tasmania. Following the inauguration of the new constitution of Victoria, Kay was appointed clerk of the Executive Council (November 18, 1856) and served in that capacity for nearly twenty years until his death in 1875. This is the clearest possible indication that if relations between Hotham and his local officials were execrable, Kay’s dealings with them, and with Mr. Foster, were far happier, and that neither Downing Street nor the Admiralty showed any signs of dissatisfaction with his performance.
However, we know nothing about Commander Kay’s role, if indeed he played one, in the matter of William Porter Finlay. He may have taken a leaf from Mr. Foster’s book, and chosen simply to do nothing. Where, after all, was the young man now? With the colony in its current, chaotic state he could have been anywhere—in all probability somewhere on the diggings, like everybody else.
Certainly William Porter Finlay never joined the goldfields police, but we know that he did indeed make his way to the goldfields. In one of a series of colourful despatches published in the Saint Louis Leader in 1857–58, and soon afterwards syndicated in the New York Herald, William recalled that only two years earlier, on Christmas Eve 1855, he had been on the Australian goldfields, “riding stock horses at a hurdle race, and dancing at a diggers’ ball in the evening”—maybe in “The Mall” in Bendigo, or Sturt Street, Ballarat.
Perhaps grasping that his fortunes were unlikely to improve in Victoria, and maybe sensing that his father’s efforts on his behalf had only served to close certain doors in his face, William’s eyes evidently turned homeward. Clearly he gathered more than enough money to pay for a berth on the Sardinian. In June 1856, he sailed from Port Melbourne to Liverpool. By Christmas Eve, he was standing “on the shore of Strangford Lough, in [Co. Down, Northern] Ireland, knocking down snipe, hares and pheasants,” apparently as if, over the past five years, nothing at all had happened. This was hardly the outcome that William’s father had intended, nor indeed his influential friends in Whitehall, and if the young man’s reappearance in Belfast caused him any consternation, wisely Mr. Finlay chose not to communicate it, except, perhaps, to life-long friends such as Dr. Henry Montgomery. Carrying a loaded gun, the unexpectedly returned, reinvented, and presumably not inconspicuous William Porter Finlay is the elephant in the room of his father’s long obituary.
Six to nine months before it was published, some time in the first half of 1857, William sailed across the Atlantic to America. His likeliest landfall was New Orleans, La., whence passage up the Mississippi to Saint Louis, Mo., was a relatively straightforward matter. As on his earlier voyage to Melbourne, William carried with him yet more letters of introduction and it was presumably these that cemented his happy but short-lived journalistic association with Jedediah Vincent Huntington of the Saint Louis Leader. By July he had traveled up the Missouri to Fort Leavenworth in the territory of Kansas, and proceeded to supply the Leader with eminently readable reports.
His earliest articles describe in vivid detail the experience of marching in July–August as a civilian alongside the Tenth U.S. Infantry from Fort Leavenworth to Fort Laramie, Nebraska. They recount his employment in September at Laramie by W. M. F. Magraw on a crew surveying the Pacific Wagon Road. And they proceed in October to cover his virtual impressment into the “volunteer” infantry company formed by Mr. Magraw to shield against the bizarre Nauvoo Legion of Mormons under the command of Governor Brigham Young of Utah. Within weeks William rose to the rank of sergeant-major. His dispatches, always ebullient, at times outspoken, and not uncritical of Magraw’s drinking habits, perhaps for that reason ended abruptly at the beginning of 1858 at Camp Scott, in the territory of Utah. And that is where William Porter Finlay disappears, but completely, from the historical record.
William’s story is full of holes. We do not yet know where, when, or in what circumstances he died. He may have keen killed in Utah. Certainly he was not among the guests at the wedding of his brother Hamilton to Miss Lamb, which took place in the summer of 1874, at St. Clement’s Anglo-Catholic Episcopal Church in Appletree Street, Philadelphia—an intriguing shift in religious affiliation. And he is absent from the United States Census of 1880.
Yet what is most striking about his story is that throughout the second decade of the reign of Queen Victoria William Porter Finlay collided with, or simply wandered in and out of at least half a dozen of the most important events in the history of the nineteenth-century British Empire: the Irish Famine; the Great Exhibition; the Xhosa War in South Africa; the Crimea; the first rumblings of the Indian Mutiny, and the Australian Gold Rush.
The liberal network of influence in which his father was embedded gave William a certain amount of forward propulsion, and several vital exit strategies, yet he bounced from place to place, from scrape to disaster and back again, his global trajectory defying several mighty attempts to find him a suitable berth in the light of what almost everyone around him regarded as, at best, shockingly reduced circumstances—everyone, that is, except William Porter Finlay.
William refuses to stay put. He manages to get himself home to Northern Ireland for a spot of hunting, and at length he steps off the imperial conveyer-belt and into the melting pot of America. William’s lively voice in the Saint Louis Leader carries not a hint of bitterness, disappointment, sorrow, or regret. He cannot wait to knock the Mormons “into any number of cocked hats,” and to have the satisfaction of bayoneting as many of them as possible. He busies himself with horses and pasture and obtaining salt and building scratch fortifications, including one of the stateliest edifices ever formed “by wagon sheets or the power of man, on which lovers of beauty daily feast their eyes.” As the Midwestern winter closes in, surrounded by snowdrifts and packs of howling wolves, William sleeps soundly in a wagon under old canvas while his thermometer sinks to ten, and then to zero degrees Fahrenheit. He fills his clay pipe with plug tobacco, makes do with half rations, black coffee and no sugar, and marvels at the bad language of the plains—which outstrips anything he has ever heard in Ireland, Croydon, the Eastern Cape, the lock-up in Calcutta, at the diggings, on the docks at Liverpool, or aboard at least nine ships, presumably including a Mississippi paddle-steamer.
It may have given him some satisfaction that after so many adventures William Porter Finlay took up his father’s craft of journalism. We do not know if the news of the death of Francis Dalzell Finlay in September 1857 caught up with him in Kansas, Nebraska, or Utah. It seems unlikely. William’s mother died in 1866, aged fifty-eight, six years before her distinguished bachelor brother retired, returned from Cape Town to Belfast, where he shared a house with their brother John. Barely a shadow, Marianne Finlay never appears to have traveled outside Northern Ireland. She lies beside her husband and several of their other children in the burying ground of the Belfast Charitable Institution.
On Christmas Eve, 1857, at Fort Barnard, Utah, William Porter Finlay confided to the readers of the Saint Louis Leader: “And now here I am, far west of the Rocky Mountains, in the United States volunteers, as happy and jolly as a sand boy.” Rarely was the Victorian way of ruin so deftly sidestepped or defied.
Acknowledgment: This essay is the product of many years of somewhat impatient research, commencing in 1991, and I am grateful to a number of friends and colleagues for their advice, above all Keith E. Wrightson, Randolph W. Townsend Jr. Professor of History at Yale University; Helen Doxford Harris; Lucille Andel; Kraig Binkowski; Patrick McCaughey; Marguerite L. Hancock; Emeritus Professor Geoffrey Blainey; John Currey; William P. MacKinnon; Joan Marsh; Stephanie Victor of the Amathole Museum in King Williams Town, South Africa; Don Collins of the Royal Belfast Academical Institution; the Rev. Dr. David Steers of the Downpatrick, Ballee and Clough Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Churches in Belfast, Northern Ireland, for their willingness to help me to dig for such few traces of William as have survived. I have also been greatly assisted by the staffs of the Asian, Pacific, and African Collections (APAC) and the Oriental and India Office Collections (OIOC) at the British Library; the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich; the National Army Museum, and the Public Record Office at Kew in London; the National Archives of India, and the Library of the Supreme Court of Bengal, both in Kolkata; the Public Record Office of Victoria, Melbourne; the Sterling Memorial and the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Libraries here at Yale, and the Reference Library here at the Yale Center for British Art. Naturally all points of interpretation and any infelicities, lacunae, not to say gaping holes, may be laid at my feet, not theirs. The quest may not be over, because I have a hunch that William abandoned the U.S. Army in 1858, washed his hands of the Mormons, and joined the gold rush to Fraser Canyon in British Columbia. Why not?