Francis Rawdon and the birth of the British Gurkhas

Thursday, 05 September 2013

A forgotten hero

Crucial in the creation of Freemasonry as we know it today, Francis Rawdon had bold ambitions that saw him twice almost becoming Prime Minister, as John Hamill discovers

Francis Rawdon, Baron Rawdon, 2nd Earl of Moira and 1st Marquess of Hastings, is one of the forgotten heroes of English masonic history. An intimate of George, Prince of Wales (later Prince Regent and King George IV), he was Acting (or, as we would say, Pro) Grand Master of the premier Grand Lodge of England from 1790 to 1813, during the Grand Mastership of the Prince of Wales. In that role he was one of the principal movers of the project to unite the two Grand Lodges then existing in the country to form the United Grand Lodge of England.

Nor has history been kind to Francis Rawdon. He was not the subject of a full biography until 2005 – surprising for one who distinguished himself as a soldier, statesman and colonial governor.

Born in 1754 in County Down, Ireland, Rawdon was the eldest son of John Rawdon, the 1st Earl of Moira. After schooling at Harrow he joined the army, arriving in Boston, Massachusetts, in July 1774 as a lieutenant in the 5th Regiment of Foot. The following year he fought with distinction at the Battle of Bunker Hill, one of the early engagements of the American War of Independence. Promotion to captain followed, and Rawdon was given a company in the 63rd Regiment of Foot, which brought him to the notice of General Sir Henry Clinton, who appointed him one of his aides-de-camp in 1776. When Clinton became Commander-in-Chief in America in 1778, he appointed Rawdon Adjutant General with the full rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

But Rawdon fell out with Clinton and resigned as Adjutant General, sailing south in 1780 with a force of more than two and a half thousand to join General Lord Cornwallis at Charleston. That same year his actions carried the day at the Battle of Camden, though victory was short lived and retreat inevitable.

From war to politics

By July 1781, fatigue and recurring bouts of malaria had almost destroyed Rawdon’s health, so he resigned his command and set sail for England. His ship, though, was attacked by privateers and he became a prisoner under the protection of a French admiral, the Count de Grasse Tilly. After negotiations, Rawdon was exchanged for Thomas Burke, the rebel Governor of North Carolina, and finally arrived home in 1782, to be rewarded by promotion to full colonel and created Baron Rawdon in his own right.

Back in England, Rawdon took to politics as a member of the House of Lords but continued his military service. He last led in the field in 1794 when he took a force to the Low Countries to rescue the Duke of York, whose army was surrounded by the French at Malines.

In the Lords, Rawdon began as a Tory but, once part of the Prince of Wales’s inner circle, moved to the Whigs. For more than two decades he regularly spoke in the House on economic, foreign policy and military matters, and was a supporter of Irish issues and Catholic Emancipation. During George III’s first period of ‘madness’, in 1788, he tried to persuade the Lords to make the Prince of Wales sole Regent and was to do so again in 1810. There were two attempts to form an administration with Rawdon as Prime Minister but he held government office only once, as Master-General of the Ordnance in 1806.

‘He persuaded the Gurkhas to form a regiment as part of the army in India.’

Serving the empire

In 1813, Rawdon took up the position of Governor General of Bengal and soon declared war on Nepal and its Gurkha army, which had been making incursions across the border. His skills as a tactician forced the Gurkhas to sue for peace, but so taken was he with their bravery that he persuaded them to form a regiment as part of the army in India – the birth of the long connection between these tough Nepalese people and the British Army.

Moira was rewarded in December 1816 by being created Marquess of Hastings. Earlier in that year he had waged war on the Pindaris and his success in that enterprise, in 1817, established British supremacy in the whole sub-continent. He then turned his mind to civil matters, encouraging education and a free press and rooting out government corruption. This brought him into conflict with the East India Company, and those quarrels and failing health forced his return to England in 1823.

The cost of the Indian sojourn and his personal generosity had almost bankrupted Rawdon, and in 1824 he was forced to accept the lesser appointment of Governor and Commander-in-Chief of Malta. Again he was popular, attempting to improve life for the Maltese and tackling government corruption. His stay was short, though. In 1826 he was badly injured in a riding accident and died recuperating on a ship on its way to Naples. He was buried in Malta.

As a measure of Rawdon’s popularity, when the premier Grand Lodge heard he was leaving for India, they raised the handsome sum of £670 to purchase a gold collar from which hung his jewel as Acting Grand Master. The jewel survives and is on display at Grand Lodge for all to admire.

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