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Francis Rawdon Chesney was born on 16th March 1789 at Ballyveagh, near Annalong, county Down.  He was the eldest son of Captain Alexander Chesney, a coastguard officer, originally from Ballymena, and his second wife, Jane (née Wilson).

A born soldier, Francis was appointed at the age of nine as sub-lieutenant in a yeomanry corps, and, during the 1798 insurrection, he walked the twenty miles barefoot from Kilkeel to Newry to join his unit.  In 1803, his godfather, Lord Moira presented him with a cadetship at the Royal Artillery academy at Woolwich and was commissioned in the Royal Artillery in 1805.

Francis Rawdon Chesney pictured in the early 1860s. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
Francis Rawdon Chesney pictured in the early 1860s. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

In 1814 when he returned to county Down, he rescued the crew of a French ship that had run aground and was presented with the Medal of the Societe des Naufrages.  In 1829 he was on his way to assist the Turks in the Russo-Turkish war, but he arrived in Constantinople after the war had ended and took the opportunity to explore Egypt and Syria and the possibility of routes to India.  He was able to report the feasibility of a Suez Canal which contradicted previous French estimates.  The British Government failed to exploit the idea and Chesney’s findings were vital to French engineer Ferdinard de Lesseps’ decision to undertake the project.

Chesney returned to England in September 1832 after surveying the lower Euphrates by raft and was convinced that the river was navigable, providing a swift route to India.  He also believed a British presence in Mesopotamia would discourage Russian encroachment.  Chesney had a well-publicised interview with William IV in April 1833, who became an avid supporter of the Euphrates scheme.  Petitioning led to the nomination of a select committee which in June 1834 supported an exploratory expedition with the backing of £20,000.  Chesney was given the temporary rank of Colonel and lead fourteen officers and thirty-nine men on the mission.

The Ulster History Circle unveiled one its blue plaques at Francis Chesney’s birthplace in June 2009. © Ulster History Circle
The Ulster History Circle unveiled one its blue plaques at Francis Chesney’s birthplace in June 2009. © Ulster History Circle

On 10th February 1835 they sailed for Syria.  The two steamships, ‘Euphrates’ and ‘Tigris’, had to be tugged in sections over fifty miles of difficult terrain, the Arab tribes along the route were hostile and many of the men, including Chesney, suffered from malaria.  On 21st May 1836 a sudden storm hit and the ‘Tigris’ was wrecked with the loss of twenty lives.  Chesney managed, with the remaining boat, to explore and chart the Euphrates, the Tigris and the Karum rivers.  This exploration ended in India and he returned to London in August 1837.  This accomplishment won him the admiration of geographers and he was awarded the Geographical Society’s gold medal. 

After preparing an account of the expedition, Chesney returned to regimental duty in 1841 and by 1843 had risen in rank being appointed Commandant of Hong Kong.  In 1847 Chesney returned to England; his last military appointment was as Colonel Commandant of the Cork district, after which he retired to his home at Pacolet, near Kilkeel, county Down in 1852. 

In 1856 Chesney was involved in an expedition to survey the construction of a railway through the Euphrates valley.  Again, in 1857 and 1863, he visited Constantinople to lobby the Turkish government. He travelled on to Syria to survey its suitability for a rail link but there had been objections from the French.

The Ulster History Circle  plaques at Francis Chesney’s birthplace. © Ulster History Circle

During this time, Chesney received a Doctorate of Civil Law by Oxford University, was elected fellow of the Royal Society and of the Royal Geographical Society.  He was promoted to major-general in 1855 and full general in 1868.  During his lifetime Chesney published many works, including those on his exploration of the Rivers Euphrates and Tigris, a book on firearms and artillery, and another on the Russo-Turkish campaigns.

At the opening of the Suez Canal on 17th November 1869, Ferdinand de Lesseps referred to Chesney as ‘the Father of the Suez Canal’.  Chesney remained active into his eighties, when he would regularly walk in the Mournes.  He died at Pacolet 30th January 1872.  An Ulster History Circle blue plaque was unveiled to him on 23rd June 2009 at his birthplace near Annalong.

 Newry and Mourne Museum is open Wednesday – Saturday 10.00 am – 12 noon and 2.00 pm – 4.00 pm. Please call 0330 137 4422 for further information.

by Dympna Tumilty

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