Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Wilson, Charles William
WILSON, Sir CHARLES WILLIAM (1836–1905), major-general royal engineers, born at Liverpool on 14 March 1836, was second son of Edward Wilson by his wife Frances, daughter of Thomas Stokes, of Hean Castle, Pembrokeshire, a property which Edward Wilson bought from his wife's brother. Sir Charles's grandfather, also Edward Wilson (d. 1843), of a West Yorkshire family, owned property in America, where one of his sons, Thomas Bellerby Wilson, Sir Charles's uncle and godfather, lived, devoting himself to science; he founded the Entomological Society of Philadelphia and proved a munificent benefactor to that society and to the Academy of Natural Science in the same city.
Charles spent seven years at Liverpool College, and two years at Cheltenham College, which he left head of the modern side in June 1854. He then passed a year at Bonn University. In a special open competitive army examination held in Aug. 1855, Wilson, youngest of forty-six candidates, passed second, (Sir) Robert Murdoch Smith gaining the first place. The two obtained the only commissions given in the royal engineers, Wilson becoming lieutenant on 24 Sept. 1855.
After instruction at Chatham Wilson was posted to a company at Shorncliffe Camp in April 1857, and soon after was employed on the defences at Gosport. In February 1858 he was made secretary of the commission to delimitate the boundary between British Columbia and the United States of America, from the Lake of the Woods westward to the Pacific Ocean. With Captain (afterwards General Sir) J. S. Hawkins, R.E., the British commissioner, Wilson arrived at Esquimalt, by way of Colon and Panama, on 12 July. For the next four years Wilson was engaged in marking a straight boundary from the Pacific, through prairie and primeval forests, over mountains 7000 feet high, and in a climate of extreme temperatures, almost uninhabited and unknown. Astronomical stations were formed at suitable points. The outdoor work was finished at the end of 1861 in the hardest winter known, the thermometer down to 30° below zero at night. The commission returned to England on 14 July 1862 to draw up the report.
After eighteen months' employment on the defences of the Thames and Medway, and being promoted captain on 20 June 1864, Wilson volunteered for the duty of surveying Jerusalem. The secretary for war had agreed to appoint an engineer officer for the service, without paying his expenses. Wilson reached Jerusalem with a few sappers from the ordnance survey early in October 1864, and the work progressed steadily. At the request of Colonel Sir Henry James [q. v.], director of the ordnance survey, he ran a line of levels by way of Jericho to Jerusalem and thence by El Jeb and Lydda to Jaffa to ascertain the difference of level between the Mediterranean and the Dead Sea, and showed that in the month of March the Dead Sea was 1292 feet below the Mediterranean Sea, and in summer about six feet more. Wilson returned home in July 1865. The results of the survey were published, and included plans with photographs of Jerusalem and the vicinity. This survey led to the formation of the Palestine Exploration Fund, and Wilson undertook the preliminary work, starting for Palestine on 5 Nov. 1865. A general reconnaissance which he made of the country between Beirut and Hebron showed how little was known of the antiquities of Palestine, and the need of a thorough investigation. Elected a member of the executive committee of the fund on his return in June 1866, Wilson was one of its most energetic supporters for life, becoming chairman in 1901.
From October 1866 to October 1868 Wilson was at Inverness in charge of the ordnance survey in Scotland, being also employed, in the summer of 1867, as an assistant commissioner under the parliamentary boundary commission for part of the west midland districts of England. Between October 1868 and May 1869 he was surveying the Sinaitic peninsula, with, among others, Professor E. H. Palmer [q. v.]. Appointed on 16 May 1869 executive officer of the topographical branch of the ordnance survey in London under Sir Henry James, Wilson became on 1 April 1870 first director of the topographical department at the war office, when the other departments of the ordnance survey were transferred to the office of works; at his suggestion this department was reconstructed in 1873 as a branch of an intelligence department for war, and his title was changed to that of an assistant quartermaster general in the intelligence department. From 1876 Wilson was in charge of the ordnance survey in Ireland. Promoted major on 23 May 1873, he was created C.B., civil division, in 1877. In 1874 he was elected F.R.S.
The autumn of 1878 Wilson spent in Servia as British commissioner of the international commission for the demarcation of the new frontier under the treaty of Berlin, and in February 1879 he was appointed British military consul-general in Anatolia, Asia Minor. Wilson was promoted brevet lieutenant-colonel for his services in Servia (19 April 1879). Fixing his headquarters at Sivas, Wilson divided Anatolia into four consulates, with a British military vice-consul in each. One of the vice-consuls was Lieutenant (now Field-marshal Viscount) Kitchener. Wilson travelled much about Anatolia, learning the ways of the people and of the Turkish authorities, exerting a highly humane influence, and reporting to the foreign office through the British ambassador at Constantinople. Many of his notes on the geography, history, and archæology of the country he embodied in ‘Handbooks for Asia Minor and Constantinople,’ which he edited for John Murray in 1892 and 1895. In the summer of 1880, by direction of G. J. (afterwards Viscount) Goschen, then special ambassador to the Porte, Wilson inquired into the state of affairs in Eastern Roumelia, Bulgaria, and Macedonia (see Parl. Paper, Turkey, No. 19, 1880). He returned to his duties in Anatolia in November. In 1881 he was created a K.C.M.G.
In Oct. 1882 Wilson was summoned to Egypt to serve under Sir Edward Malet, the British consul-general. He arrived at Alexandria on 3 Sept. 1882, when an English army was in the field against Arabi Pasha. Nominated British commissioner with an expected Turkish force, which, owing to the prompt success of the British arms, was not sent, he was next appointed military attaché to the British agency in Egypt, and took charge of the Egyptian prisoners of war, including Arabi and Toulba Pashas. Sir Charles watched for the British government the trial of Arabi and his companions, and later arranged for sending the exiles and their families to Ceylon. Resuming his duties on 1 April 1883 at the head of the ordnance survey in Ireland, Wilson was promoted brevet colonel on the 19th, and was made hon. D.C.L. of Oxford in June.
Appointed chief of the intelligence department (with the grade of deputy adjutant-general) in Lord Wolseley's Nile expedition to Khartoum for the rescue of Gordon in September 1884, Wilson reached Dongola on 11 Oct. and on 15 Dec. accompanied Lord Wolseley and the rest of the staff to Korti, going on with Sir Herbert Stewart across the desert on 30 Dec. He left Korti the second time on 8 Jan. 1885, and failing to reach Khartoum by steamer in time to save Gordon, he returned to Korti a month later. He published his journal of the experience in ‘From Korti to Khartoum’ (1885; 4th edit. 1886). An attempt was made to saddle Wilson with the responsibility for the failure of the expedition. Charles Williams and other critics urged that he might have been in time to save Gordon, had he not lost three days at Gubat on his way. A complete justification of the delay is given in an anonymous publication, ‘Why Gordon Perished’ (1896), by a war correspondent. Sir Lintorn Simmons, governor of Malta, wrote on 18 June 1885: ‘The true fault lies with those who planned the expedition and started it too late, and, when they did start it, did not take proper measures to facilitate its operations and ensure its success.’ For his services Wilson was created K.C.B., military division, and when a vote of thanks was passed to the officers and men of the Nile expedition, in the House of Commons on 12 Aug. 1885, Lord Hartington refuted the charge against Wilson of unnecessary delay. Afterwards Queen Victoria summoned him to tell her his story. In the spring of 1886 he was made hon. LL.D. of Edinburgh University, and in the autumn addressed the British Association at Birmingham on the ‘History and Anthropology of the Tribes of the Soudan.’
Wilson resumed his ordnance survey work in Ireland on 1 July 1885. In November 1886 he was appointed director-general of the ordnance survey in the United Kingdom, and until 1893 was on that service at Southampton. He was president of the geographical section of the British Association at Bath in 1888. The survey was transferred from the office of works to the board of agriculture in 1890, and in 1891 Wilson received the silver medal from the Society of Arts after an address on the survey's methods and needs. In 1893 he was awarded by Dublin University the honorary degree of master in engineering, and was given the temporary rank, receiving next year the permanent rank, of major-general. From the end of 1892 to 14 March 1898 Sir Charles was director-general of military education at the war office.
In 1899, and again in 1903, Wilson revisited Palestine and devoted much time to the controversy over the sites of Golgotha and the Holy Sepulchre. He rather inclined to conservative tradition. His arguments appeared in the ‘Quarterly Statements of the Palestine Exploration Fund’ (1902 to 1904), and were collected in 1906 as ‘Golgotha and the Holy Sepulchre.’ He died after an operation at Tunbridge Wells, on 25 Oct. 1905, and was buried there.
In addition to works already cited Wilson was author of: 1. ‘Report on the Survey of Jerusalem,’ 1866. 2. ‘Report on the Survey of Sinai,’ 1869. 3. ‘Lord Clive,’ 1890, in the ‘Men of Action’ series. He also contributed to the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica,’ 9th edit., to ‘Smith's Dictionary of the Bible,’ to the Palestine Pilgrims Text Society, to the ‘Quarterly Review,’ and to ‘Blackwood's Magazine.’
Wilson married in London on 22 Jan. 1867, Olivia, daughter of Colonel Adam Duffin of the 2nd Bengal cavalry. She was granted a civil list pension of 100l. in 1905, and died on 19 May 1911. By her he had four sons and a daughter.
[War Office Records; Royal Engineers Records; Porter's History of the Royal Engineers; Life (1909) by Colonel Sir C. M. Watson; Proc. Roy. Soc., 78 A.]