Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Watson, Robert (1746-1838)

WATSON, ROBERT (1746–1838), adventurer, was born at Elgin, the first, it would seem, of two Robert Watsons baptised there—a hirer's son on 29 June 1746, and a merchant's on 7 Aug. 1769. Certainly the latter could not have been ‘intimate with Washington,’ and been lamed by a wound in the American war of independence, ‘which gave him, on his retirement, the rank of a colonel, and some land, which he sold soon after.’ Returning to Scotland from America, the hirer's son graduated M.D., and then settled in London. He was secretary to Lord George Gordon at the time of the riots of 1780, and was afterwards president of the revolutionary Corresponding Society. He was arrested for conspiracy in 1796, lay two years and three months in Newgate, and was tried at the Old Bailey, but acquitted. A reward of 400l. being offered for his reapprehension, he ‘escaped by living in disguise in a lord's house in London, and got away by the interest of Lady M'D. in a Swedish ship, in which he was nearly taken on suspicion of being Thomas Hardy.’ In October 1798 the ‘Moniteur’ announced his arrival at Nancy as that of ‘Lord Walson [sic], écossais libre;’ and, going on to Paris, he issued an address to the British people, advocating a general rising and the reception of the French as deliverers. Lodging with Napoleon's forest-keeper, he was introduced to the consul, and gave him lessons in English; Napoleon made him principal of the restored Scots College, with three thousand francs a year. He held the post six years, and it must have been during this period that, in 1807, he presided at the St. Patrick's banquet to the Irishmen in Paris. He next went to Rome to cultivate cotton and indigo in the Pontine marshes, and so gain the prize of a hundred thousand francs offered by Napoleon on the importation of these articles to France being prevented by the English government. The scheme miscarried, and the ‘Chevalier Watson’ had again to turn teacher of English. One of his pupils between 1816 and 1819 was the German painter Professor Vogel von Vogelstein, who describes him as ‘a little lame man of about sixty years of age,’ and who painted the small portrait of him now in the Scottish Portrait Gallery at Edinburgh. At Rome in 1817 he purchased for 22l. 10s. from an attorney who had been confidential agent to Cardinal York two cartloads of manuscripts, relating chiefly to the two Jacobite rebellions. These, the ‘Stuart Papers,’ were, however, seized by the Vatican and finally delivered to the prince regent; Watson stated that he got 3,100l. from the English ministry, but he actually received 3,600l. In 1825 he wrote to an Elgin friend asking a loan of 100l., and describing himself as just returned from Greece, and as possessed of a valuable collection—Queen Mary's missal, Marshal Ney's baton, Napoleon's Waterloo carriage, &c. On 19 Nov. 1838 he strangled himself in a London tavern by twisting his neckcloth with a poker as with a tourniquet. It was deposed at the inquest that his body bore nineteen old wounds, and a Colonel Macerone testified to the truth of his statements to the tavern-keeper on the eve of his suicide. He is said to have married in 1793 Cecilia, widow of the sixth Lord Rollo, and sister of James Johnstone (1719–1800?) [q. v.], the Chevalier de Johnstone; but Rollo lived to marry a second wife. Watson, however, appears to have been connected by marriage with Johnstone, whose manuscripts he sold in 1820 to Messrs. Longmans [see art. Johnstone].

Watson's chief work is a ‘Life of Lord George Gordon, with a Philosophical Review of his Political Conduct’ (London, 1795, 8vo). He also edited in 1798 the ‘Political Works’ of Fletcher of Saltoun, with notes and a memoir; and in 1821 the Chevalier Johnstone's ‘Memoirs of the Rebellion of 1745.’ His answer to Burke's ‘Reflections’ is unidentified, and he seems never to have executed his proposed translation of the ‘De Jure Regni’ of George Buchanan, whom he styles ‘the father of pure republicanism.’

[Bishop A. P. Forbes of Brechin in Proceedings Soc. Antiquaries of Scotl. December 1867, pp. 324–34, based chiefly on information supplied by Professor Vogel von Vogelstein; ‘A Wild Career,’ by Andrew Lang, in Illustrated London News, 12 March 1892, with portrait; Hone's Table Book (1827), i. 738–45; Percy Fitzgerald's Life and Times of William IV (1884), i. 53; Alger's Englishmen in the French Revolution, 1889, pp. 271–2.]

F. H. G.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.277
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

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30 ii 10-11 Watson, Robert (1746-1838): for is at least questionable, read underestimates the fact, for he received in 1817 600l., a further 500l. in June 1822, and a final sum of 2,500l. on 21 Dec. of the same year.