General Sir John Lefroy

General Sir John Lefroy (28 January 1817 – 11 April 1890) was an English military man and administrator who also distinguished himself with his scientific studies of the Earth’s magnetism. He was a keen collector of arms and armour, many of which were transferred in to the Royal Armouries collections.

General Sir John Lefroy was born on 28 January 1817 at Ashe, Hampshire. His father died when he was only 6 years old, after which the family moved to Ewshott. In 1826, Lefroy went to school in Alton were he was asked to choose between a midshipman’s berth with the Royal Navy or a cadetship with the British Army. Lefroy did not like the sea, so he chose the cadetship and in January 1831 he passed the entrance exam.

Boys were to join the Woolwich Academy on a Sunday, but Lefroy was a devout Christian and his guardian requested that this routine be changed. At Woolwich there was no chaplain or religious instruction but a code of honour existed amongst the cadets. Cadets would never break arrest, and books and instruments might be pinched, but personal property was respected and ‘off limits’. Lefroy excelled in fortification and mathematics and had aspirations of becoming an engineer. This was not to be, however, as Lefroy was sentenced to the Artillery following a scuffle with a fellow cadet over a crusty loaf of bread. The other cadet was held back a year.

Lefroy participated in many ceremonials while at Woolwich. In 1835, he participated in William IV’s review of the Academy. During the review, Queen Adelaide became so exhausted she sat down in a wheelbarrow and refused to move. In June 1838, he participated in the coronation of Queen Victoria. He was posted in the Triforium and was to give the signal when the crown was placed on the Queen’s head, which would then be passed onto saluting batteries. This was changed at the last minute and Lefroy was placed on the centre of Westminster Bridge to pass the signal onto The Tower, much to the public’s delight.

Lefroy spent three months at Chatham and was impressed by the facilities and pressed for something of the same nature at Woolwich. Whilst at Chatham, he came across the records of a previous regimental society which inspired Lefroy and his friend Lieutenant Eardley-Wilmot to put together the proposal for what became the Royal Artillery Institution. Lefroy was appointed its first secretary.

Lefroy was offered a three-year post at St Helena in charge of the magnetic station that was to be set up there. At this time, scientists were studying the problems of terrestrial magnetism and a series of magnetic stations were to be set up throughout the British Empire. Lefroy remained there until 4 February 1842. The most significant event of his time on St Helena was the exhumation of the body of the Emperor Napoleon. Lefroy was present for the entire exhumation except the final opening of the coffin. The coffin was to be opened to be sure the body had not been changed. Lefroy said that witnesses told him that Napoleon’s features were clearly distinguishable and his dress was unimpaired.

After his stay on St Helena he took charge of an observatory in Toronto, Canada. He set sail for Canada in 1842. First, he was tasked with carrying out a magnetic survey in the Northern Territories. He travelled to the North-west and was joined by one of the Hudson’s Bay Company fur brigades. Lefroy soon found that his party could not keep up with the fur brigade and take all the required observations. He broke away from the main party with a smaller group and kept to his own timetable. It took him 18 months to travel 6,000 miles and he finally returned to the observatory in December 1844. Unfortunately his diaries were lost, but the accounts of his travels are described in letters and in his autobiography.

He became a captain in November of 1845 and he stayed in Toronto for another 9 years. He married Emily Robinson on April 16 1846, and the couple spent their honeymoon in England. In 1849 he briefly gave up his work because of strain and stayed in England for a time to recuperate, but his family remained in Canada. The Canadian Institute was founded this same year and he was elected President in 1852. He remained in charge until his permanent return to England in 1854. On his return, he was posted at Woolwich and was able to resume his duties as Secretary of the Royal Artillery Institution. By the end of 1853 Lefroy was relieved of his duties as war was imminent, and he was asked to compile a Handbook of Field Artillery for the use of Officers.

In 1854, a turning point came in Lefroy’s career. He was appointed Honorary Secretary of the Patriotic Fund. He found this duty quite frustrating, as the rules were quite rigid, and after visiting the United States Lefroy found he gravitated toward freer, less conventional ways. However, this new post conveniently put him in contact with the Duke of Newcastle, Prince Albert, and members of Government. The Duke of Newcastle asked him to become his ‘Scientific Adviser on subjects of Artillery and Invention’. Lefroy worked strenuously for the introduction of rifled artillery to the army, but it was not introduced into the army until after the Crimean War.

In 1855, Lefroy was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel, and was sent to Crimea. He was to report on the commissariat, ordnance and hospital stores. Lefroy’s diary confirms many of the stories about disorganisation and the terrible privations of the troops. There were many stories in his diary confirming the difficulty in the transportation of goods, shortages in some places, excesses in other, and duplication of orders.

During an inspection tour Lefroy visited the Dardanelles and here he visited the Asiatic Fort to examine its old jointed bronze cannon which was eventually replaced by modern guns. He spent much time and effort to obtain the only gun from the Fort that was not melted down and finally in 1867 the gun was received at the Rotunda Museum, Woolwich and subsequently transferred to the Tower of London. Two accounts of the great cannon of Muhammad II were published in Proceedings of the Royal Artillery Institution (1868 and 1870). He also purchased a collection of 15th century helmets and pieces of armour from the Castle of the Knights of St John at Rhodes. These pieces were transferred to the Tower Armouries.

In 1856 Lefroy was asked to review the system of education in the army. His research resulted in Army education coming under the jurisdiction of the Secretary of State; the disappearance of Honorary Boards of Commissioners for Sandhurst and Chelsea; and the senior department at Sandhurst becoming the Staff College. Lefroy became Inspector of Army Schools in 1857 and held the post until it was abolished three years later. He founded the first School of Artillery at Shoehuryness in 1858.

In 1859 Lefroy’s wife died, and he requested a post that would take his mind off his home life. He was asked to inspect Mediterranean fortresses at Gibraltar and Malta, and then onto Corfu. When he returned to England he learned that his appointment as Scientific and Artillery Adviser had been abolished and the duties were added to those of the President of the Ordnance Select Committee. In 1860, he married for the second time and he was named Secretary of the Ordnance Select Committee, and was appointed President in 1864.

On 3 December 1868 Lefroy became Director General of Ordnance and Commandant of the Royal Arsenal. During the two years he was in the post there was an attempt to impose a ‘control department’ on the administration. Lefroy could not accept that officers needed to be watched and overruled in every detail by the civilians of the control department. On 1 April 1870 he resigned and retired. His regimental career ended.

He began a new career when he was appointed Governor and Commander in Chief of Bermuda, he occupied this post for ten years. In addition to his official duties, he collected and published a number of documents of the island’s early history and tried to improve local methods of cultivation and to resume his scientific observations. In 1880 he accepted temporary governorship of Tasmania, he stayed for a little over a year.

He returned to England in 1882. He made his last contribution to magnetic science with the publication of the diary of his Canadian work.

He died on 11 April 1890.