Open main menu

HAMILTON, WILLIAM RICHARD (1777–1859), antiquarian and diplomatist, born in London 9 Jan. 1777, was the son of the Rev. Anthony Hamilton, D.D. (1739–1812), archdeacon of Colchester, vicar of St. Martin's-in-the-Fields, and rector of Hadham, Hertfordshire, and cousin of 'Single- speech Hamilton' [see Hamilton, William Gerard]. His mother was Anne, daughter of Richard Terrick, bishop of London. The family were descended from the Hamiltons of Wishaw, Lanarkshire [see under Hamilton, William, d. 1724]. After studying at Harrow, where he was accidentally lamed for life, he was entered both at Oxford and Cambridge universities, and in 1799 began his public life by becoming secretary to Lord Elgin when the latter was appointed ambassador at Constantinople. The earl frequently entrusted him with business of importance, and in 1801 sent him on a diplomatic mission to Egypt on the occasion of the French evacuation after the battle of Alexandria. Hamilton discovered that the French, contrary to treaty, had stealthily shipped the famous trilingual stone of Rosetta. He procured an escort of soldiers, and, in spite of the danger of fever, rowed out to the French transport and insisted on carrying off the precious monument. He was also of signal service to Lord Elgin in collecting the Grecian marbles, and in 1802 he superintended their removal. When the vessel containing some of the principal groups sank to the bottom at Cerigo, Hamilton set divers to work and recovered the whole of his cargo. On 16 Oct. 1809 he was appointed undersecretary of state for foreign affairs, an office which he held till 22 Jan. 1822, when he became minister at the court of Naples, where he remained till 1825. During the former appointment, when with Lord Castlereagh in Paris after the battle of Waterloo, Hamilton had mainly the credit of compelling the Bourbon government to restore to Italy the works of art which she had been bereft of by the French armies. Meanwhile he had from time to time been giving proofs of considerable literary power. In 1809 appeared his principal work, 'Ægyptiaca, or Some Account of the Antient and Modern State of Egypt, accompanied with Etchings from Drawings taken on the spot by Charles Hayes.' This quarto is the first volume of a larger work projected by the author 'on several parts of Turkey,' as he vaguely expressed a design never carried out. The 'Ægyptiaca' shows considerable research, and was intended to supplement the works of Pococke, Norden, Volney, Sonnini, Denon, and Wilson (see preface to vol. i.) There is much matter of interest to antiquarians and historians with regard to nearly all the names occurring in the map of Egypt; but the most important of its contents is his transcript of the 'Greek Copy of the Decree on the Rosetta Stone,' with a translation in English. His comment, at the end of chapter ii., is that 'hitherto all attempts to decypher the hieroglyphic or Coptic inscriptions have proved fruitless.' In 1811 Hamilton published a 'Memoir on the subject of the Earl of Elgin's Pursuits in Greece,' In 1833 Hamilton was actively employed as one of the founders of the Royal Geographical Society. He also took great interest in the Royal Institution and the Royal Society of Literature. In 1838, as a man of recognised taste in art and sound criticism, he was appointed one of the trustees to the British Museum, an honourable office which he retained till 1858. Hamilton died on 11 July 1859 at Bolton Row, London, in his eighty-second year. Hamilton married, on 3 Sept, 1804, Juliana, daughter of John Udny of Udny, Aberdeen, by whom, he had six sons and a daughter. The eldest son, William John, is separately noticed; the fifth is General Sir Frederick William Hamilton, K.C.B. Walter Kerr Hamilton [q. v.], bishop of Salisbury, was a nephew.

[Chambers's Eminent Scotsmen; Annual Register, ci. 430; Imp. Dict. Biog.; Foster's Peerage, s.v. 'Belhaven.']

R. E. A.