Thomas Drummond

Drummond, Thomas, R.E., statesman, was born in Edinburgh, 10th October 1797. His father was a Writer to the Signet. Thomas early showed an inventive genius, and when at school evinced considerable aptitude for science. A cadetship was obtained for him, and he arrived at Woolwich in February 1813. The first few months of his cadet life were miserable — he was half-starved, and the tyranny of the elder cadets was all but intolerable.

His scientific proclivities and indomitable perseverance carried him through however, and in July 1815 he passed with distinction, and was drafted into the Royal Engineers. In the autumn of 1819 he became acquainted with Colonel Colby, and in the following year gladly accepted a post under him in the Scotch Ordnance Survey — a field peculiarly fitted for the display and development of his talents. His summer months were occupied in laborious mountain surveys, while the winter was spent chiefly in laying down the summer work at the Tower of London, and in scientific investigations. In the course of 1824-5 he invented the limelight, otherwise known as the Drummond light, as well as the heliostat, an instrument for throwing rays of light in a given direction, and thereby facilitating trigonometrical surveys in murky weather. The utility of these inventions was at once acknowledged by the scientific world.

In the autumn of 1824 the Irish survey was begun by a reconnaissance through the island by Colby and Drummond, and in the following year the triangulation commenced by observations between Divis, near Belfast, and Slieve Snaght in Innishowen. The sighting between these points, sixty-seven miles, would have been almost impossible in ordinary weather but for Drummond's light and heliostat. The hardships he endured in a sod hut on the top of Slieve Snaght in the winter months resulted in a severe illness, compelling his return to Edinburgh.

The years 1825-'8 were mainly occupied in preparation for the measurement of the Irish base line of 34,028.5 feet on the eastern shore of Lough Foyle. This was accomplished by the aid of the Colby-Drummond brass-iron compensation bars, six in number, 10 feet 1.5 inches long each, furnished with compensation microscopes. These were prepared with personal labour and scientific research by Drummond himself in the Ordnance Office in the Tower. Probably the measurement of the Irish base is one of the most accurate ever made. The anxiety and exposure attending this task seriously undermined his health.

The autumn of 1829 was occupied in establishing by experiment the suitability of the Drummond light for lighthouse purposes. The expense attending its use has been the only bar to its practical application. An intimacy with Lord Brougham led to Drummond's appointment, in August 1831, as head of the Boundary Commission in connexion with the Reform Bill. A pension of £300 was conferred upon him for these services, which after two years he declined any longer to accept. In 1833 he became private secretary to Lord Althorp, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, and in July 1835 his scientific career was brought to a close by his coming to Ireland with Lord Mulgrave as Under-Secretary. A few months later he married Miss Kinnaird, a lady possessed of great personal attractions, who by her mental qualities was admirably fitted to be his companion. She had, moreover, a considerable fortune.

The Ordnance Survey had given him exceptional opportunities of seeing the country the full possession of physical energy and mental vigour, and with a mind filled with zeal to perform service in Ireland. He believed that Government might effect wonders in Ireland, and he entered upon his duties with a head teeming with projects of reform, and a heart overflowing with affection for the Irish people." He soon became the heart and soul of the Irish administration, and before he was a month in the country set about remodelling the police force established in 1814, which he found in a most inefficient state. The underpaid, worn-out body of 400 Dublin watchmen, he replaced with a force of about 1,000 able and efficient men; while the constabulary, almost all Protestants, and equally inefficient, he entirely remodelled into the present force, and attracted to the service Catholic officers and men.

Sir Charles Napier, during a visit to Ireland not long afterwards, having investigated the more efficient condition of the constabulary, warmly praised Drummond's powers of administration, and declared that he was "just the sort of man that was wanted to govern India." With this force, as completely under control at Dublin Castle as one of his own delicate scientific instruments, he soon grappled, on the one hand, with the scandal of the bloody faction fights hitherto so prevalent at fairs and gatherings, and on the other, with the intolerant excesses of effete ascendancy.

The procedure of the county courts was improved, and in places where crime was rampant, and the local magistrates did not appear efficient, stipendiary magistrates were appointed. This gave offence to many, and he drew down on himself a storm of opprobrium by dismissing Colonel Verner from the magistracy for publicly toasting "The Battle of the Diamond." Taking the mean of the years 1826-'8, and 1836-'8, the various classes of crime in Ireland were reduced under his administration — 10 per cent, in the more serious cases, and as much as 86 per cent, in house-breaking. On the other hand, minor offences, such as misdemeanours and larceny apparently increased, owing to their being taken cognizance of by the police.

In 1838 the Poor-law system was established in Ireland, and it was within the next few years carried into practical operation mainly through his exertions. In April 1838 a communication was received by the Irish Government from Lords Glengall and Lismore and thirty other Tipperary magistrates, relative to the murder of a Mr. Cooper, giving a dreadful account of the state of the country, and calling upon the Government for more stringent measures for the suppression of crime. Drummond replied in a long letter, dated Dublin Castle, 22nd May 1838, pointing out the gross exaggerations that characterized their communication, and taking the opportunity of expressing his condemnation of the manner in which Irish landlords generally neglected their duties towards their tenants. It contained the words: "Property has its duties as well as its rights; to the neglect of those duties in times past is mainly to be ascribed that diseased state of society in which such crimes take their rise." The enunciation of this apparently simple aphorism raised a perfect storm of rage and indignation, and in both Houses of Parliament Drummond's policy was called in question.

His leading scheme for the benefit of Ireland was the development of the resources of the country by the construction of a system of railways in whole or in part by Government. An Irish Railway Commission was appointed in October 1836 (the Dublin and Kingstown Railway being then the only one in course of construction). Drummond, appointed at his own solicitation one of the commission, became in truth its mainspring. It reported in July 1838. "Its labours were most arduous; their report on the general condition of the country and its trade, with the evidence on which it was founded, and the explanatory maps and plans which accompanied it, is one of the ablest ever submitted to Parliament." Its main recommendation was the construction by Government of trunk lines from Dublin to Cork, with branches to Kilkenny, Limerick, and Waterford, and from Dublin north to Navan, branching to Belfast and Enniskillen. Owing to political and private jealousies this well-planned scheme was defeated — one that would doubtless ultimately have expanded into an efficient system of Government railways all through Ireland, and have saved the construction of many needless lines. Drummond's calculations as to the paying capabilities of the different routes have been singularly verified.

Other services in the cause of Ireland followed — the Municipal Boundaries Commission, the abolition of the hulks at Cork and Dublin, the suppression of the disgraceful Sunday drinking booths in the Phoenix Park. But the failure of his railway scheme preyed upon his mind, and his health never recovered the arduous labours undertaken in connexion with it. About this period he was urged to enter Parliament, but declined, saying that he felt he could serve Ireland better in his official position of Under-Secretary. In the winter of 1839 his health became visibly impaired; he sank rapidly, and died of internal erysipelas, on 15th April 1840, aged 42. When asked whether he desired to be buried in Ireland or Scotland, he whispered: "In Ireland, the land of my adoption; I have loved her well and served her faithfully, and lost my life in her service." He was buried at Mount Jerome.

His biographer, Mr. McLennan, says: "In Ireland his death was bewailed as a national calamity. The simplicity of his devotion to her, before known to many, and now believed by all on the evidence of his dying words, combined Irishmen of all classes and parties in a common lamentation." Hogan's fine statue of Thomas Drummond, in the City Hall, Dublin, erected by public subscription, attests the estimation with which his memory was regarded.


109. Drummond, Thomas, Memoirs: John F. McLennan. Edinburgh, 1867.