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Seton, Alexander (1814-1852) (DNB00)

SETON, ALEXANDER (1814–1852), lieutenant-colonel, born at Mounie in Aberdeenshire on 4 Oct. 1814, was the second but eldest surviving son of Alexander Seton of Mounie, by Janet Skene, his wife, daughter of Skene Ogilvy, D.D., minister of Old Machar, Aberdeenshire. He was descended from Sir Alexander Seton, lord Pitmedden [q. v.] Alexander was educated at home until the age of fifteen, and then studied mathematics and chemistry for some months under Ferdinando Foggi at Pisa. On 23 Nov. 1832 he was gazetted second lieutenant in the 21st or royal North British fusiliers, and next year he was sent with part of his regiment to the Australian colonies. He returned to Scotland on leave in 1838, and was promoted to a first lieutenancy on 2 March. He rejoined his regiment in India, and received a company on 14 Jan. 1842. Shortly after he exchanged into the 74th, and was stationed at Chatham. There he studied for two years in the senior department of the Royal Military College, and in November 1847 received a first-class certificate. In 1849 he proceeded to Ireland as assistant deputy quartermaster-general of the forces there. He held this post till 24 May 1850, when he was promoted to a majority. On 7 Nov. 1851 he obtained the rank of lieutenant-colonel, and about the same time was ordered to take command of the drafts destined for the Cape of Good Hope, where his regiment was engaged in the Kaffir war. He sailed in the steam troopship Birkenhead, which on the morning of 26 Feb. 1852 struck on a rock in False Bay, twenty miles south of Cape Town, and foundered in little more than ten minutes. In spite of the sudden nature of the catastrophe, Seton issued his orders with perfect calmness. The scene is said by an eyewitness to have resembled an embarkation, with the difference that there was less confusion. The boats could only contain the women and children, and out of 638 persons 445 were lost, Seton himself being killed by the fall of part of the wreck. He died unmarried, and his property descended to his younger brother, David. The heroism displayed by Seton and the rest of those on board the Birkenhead was commemorated by Sir Francis Doyle in a poem on ‘The Loss of the Birkenhead,’ in ‘The Return of the Guards and other Poems’ (1866; cf. R. L. Stevenson, Essay on Admirals, and Rudyard Kipling, Seven Seas).

[A Short Memoir of Alexander Seton, 1854; Burke's Landed Gentry, 6th edit.; Annual Register, 1852, pp. 470–2; Notes and Queries, 8th ser. ix. 492; Cornhill Mag. February 1897.]

E. I. C.