Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Sir Thomas Reade - "the noisiest filibuster of them all" (Walter Runciman)

Reade, Sir Thomas, (1782-1849). Deputy Adjutant-General in St. Helena.

The only son of William Reade, a surgeon of Congleton Cheshire, and Hannah, his second wife.

His mother died when he was two and his father when he was eleven. He was articled to a Congleton Attorney, but ran away and enlisted at the age of 16 (1799). Within a few days he received a commission, probably purchased by a member of his family.

He served in Holland, Egypt, Malta, Naples, Sicily, Spain, in the almost forgotten campaign in America (1814), and finally under the command of Hudson Lowe in Genoa. He was knighted in 1815 at the age of 33.

St Helena and The Captivity of Napoleon

Reade was a faithful supporter of the policies of Sir Hudson Lowe towards Napoleon, and indeed, as Arnold Chaplin commented, "he often thought Lowe too lenient in his administration." Apparently Lady Lowe, not the most supportive of wives perhaps, frequently referred to him as "the real Governor."

Among his many tasks was that of monitoring the letters between Dr Verling and Mme. Betrand. Chaplin was critical of his and the British Government's conduct in this matter:
But although the British officials in St. Helena rightly blamed O'Meara for making Madame de Montholon's illness the occasion of jokes in letters to Sir Thomas Reade, they did not, apparently, see any indelicacy in Sir Thomas reading and commenting on gynaecological details concerning Madame Bertrand's illness.(1)

Sir Thomas appears to have met Napoleon only three times: April 17th, May 27th, and October 4th, 1816. He is most probably better remembered for a most famous failed meeting when in September 1819 he turned up at Longwood demanding proof that the reclusive ex-Emperor was indeed still in residence. In one of the most absurd episodes among many contenders, Sir Thomas banged on the door bellowing at the top of his voice, "Come out, Napoleon Bonaparte. We want Napoleon Bonaparte." Suffice it to say that Sir Thomas failed to carry out the implied threat to break the door down, and retreated without having seen the Emperor.

On an earlier occasion Napoleon refused to see Sir Thomas Strange with the riposte, "Tell the Governor that those who have gone down to the tomb receive no visits, and take care that the judge be made acquaintance with my answer."
The redoubtable Sir Thomas Reade responded,
If I were Governor, I would bring that dog of a Frenchman to his senses; I would isolate him from all his friends, who are no better than himself; then I would deprive him of his books. He is in fact nothing but a miserable outlaw, and I would treat him as such. By G--! it would be a great mercy to the King of France to rid him of such a fellow altogether. It was a piece of great cowardice not to have sent him at once to a court martial instead of sending him here." (2)

The generally negative picture of Sir Thomas which emerges from reading Chaplin, Runciman and Watson is confirmed by Gorrequer's diaries, to which they did not have access. Gorrequer clearly disliked him greatly, and gave him the nickname Nincumpoop, which requires no elaboration. The following extracts, absent from the best known narratives of the captivity and, allowing for Gorrequer's prejudices, do not show Sir Thomas in a very favourable light.

"His encouraging Mach to persevere in sending felucca [the ship] to Ethiopia in the present state of its crew, and the consequences notwithstanding his advice of the contrary. But even the lives of men were of no consequence to him, Nincumpoop, as long as he could only carry his point and show his influence over Mach. That fellow did not care a damn about men's lives to attain his object. His telling such downright lies the preceding evening about Major B------" (3)

"Ninny [Reade] wrote to Mach: 'My opinion is still that he [Napoleon] will get better.' Though Medico 20th [Dr. Arnott], the great oracle, had the preceding day reported him dangerously ill. His opinion, indeed!" (4)

"Sultana and Ninny endeavoured to make the public believe the followers were delighted at Bony's death, affecting to say they were delighted." (5)

"Tresorier of ship coming home told Ego that he never heard a man so abused as he heard Ninny; he seemed to have made an immense number of enemies; he had been at a party of 8 or 9 persons, every one of whom had some heavy complaint against him, and who seemed to be exasperated against him; so bad indeed that he at last took Ninny's part." (6)

Albert Benhamou probably summed it up nicely in a comment made on one of my recent blogs: "Hudson Lowe was feared at St Helena, while Thomas Reade was hated."


A bachelor during his time on St Helena, it appears that he fathered a child by a slave. This was not unusual among the leading families on St Helena, as we know from the efforts of the Rev Boys to shame them by entering the names of the fathers of such children in the church baptismal records,

The child, a boy named John, lived only a few months.

On September 8th 1824 Sir Thomas married Agnes Clogg of Longsight Lodge, Manchester in the Collegiate Church (now Manchester Cathedral). He was in the same year appointed His Britannic Majesty's Agent and Consul-General in the Regency of Tunis, a post he held until his death in Tunisia in 1849. A memorial was erected to him in Congleton Church.

During his time in Tunisia he became involved in the excavation and study of Carthage and other Roman antiquities, and he assembled a valuable collection of objects.
Presumably Sir Thomas would have become acquainted with the Bey's Palace:
"On the walls were portraits of Napoleon and paintings of his battles. On his book shelves figured a book on Napoleon’s reign the Bey had ordered to be translated into Arabic." (7)

One wonders what he made of that.
1. Chaplin, A St Helena Whos Who London 1919, pp 97, 117-118. To another scholar of the Captivity, George Leo de St. M. Watson, he was simply " undistinguished Captain in a foot regiment (via the Lancashire Militia), pitchforked for the time being into a local Lieutenant-Colonelcy .." Polish Exile with Napoleon p 32. Watson also commented that "everybody at St. Helena was 'on the make' .. Lowe was the exception : he entertained too freely. But his D.A.G. made up for it. Reade had a talent for stepping into snug little berths - like that of 'Vendue Master" (whatever it may be) at £300 a year in October 1818 - when their occupants were invalided home; and he was never averse from huckstering in horseflesh and the like. " pp 67-8, and finally he commented ironically on Reade's unpopularity: "Alarm House, where Reade cultivated rurally that prime Doric way which made him such a favourite with English and French alike" p. 32
2. Hazlitt, commenting on a similar speech by Sir Thomas was scathing: "Oaths, malignity, meanness, abuse, right, and duty are blended in as fine a confusion as one would wish. Such were the persons sent out to represent the boasted heroism and generosity of the English nation and government!" Hazlitt, Life of Napoleon Vol IV, 2nd Edition, p. 261
3 28th August 1818, Gorrequer p. 87
4. 27th April 1821,Gorrequer p. 226
5. Gorrequer p. 260
6. Gorrequer p. 262
7. Abolition of Slavery in Tunisia


drummondislander said...

Thanks for your blog! Question: Is this the Thomas Reade who wrote a book called Christian Retirement: Or Spiritual Exercises of the Heart ??? also, Christian Experience as Displayed in the Life and Writings of St. Paul ???

John Tyrrell said...

Thanks for your comment.

You are referring to Thomas Shaw Bancroft Reade (1776–1841) of Leeds, although probably born in Manchester and connected to the Bancrofts, a merchant family in Manchester .

He was in some way connected to the family of Sir Thomas Reade, but I am not sure of the precise relationship.

You wll find more information about him and his apparently more famous son Joseph Bancroft Reade in "The Reades of Blackwell Hill"

best wishes