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Picton, Sir Thomaslocked

  • Robert Havard

Sir Thomas Picton (1758–1815)

by Sir Martin Archer Shee, in or before 1812

Picton, Sir Thomas (1758–1815), army officer and colonial governor, was born on 24 August 1758 at the house later known as the Dragon Hotel in Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire, the seventh of the twelve children of Thomas Picton (1723–1790), a landowner and sheriff, of Poyston, Pembrokeshire, and his wife, Cecil (1728–1806), the daughter of the Revd Edward Powell of Llandough, Glamorgan.

Early years and the Trinidad governorship

Picton enjoyed a country upbringing at Poyston, 3 miles north of Haverfordwest, and attended Haverfordwest grammar school. At the age of thirteen he was gazetted an ensign in the 12th foot, commanded by his uncle William Picton. He studied for two years at a military academy in Little Chelsea under Louis Lochée before joining his regiment in 1773 at Gibraltar, where he took the trouble to learn Spanish. After three years of inactive service at Gibraltar he exchanged into the 75th foot, whereupon he returned to England and missed the memorable siege of Gibraltar. A rare opportunity to show his mettle arose in Bristol in 1783, when he quelled a riot of his own troops who had grown mutinous on hearing notice of their disbandment. His action saved an ugly situation in College Green Square, but the promise of promotion on the strength of it was not fulfilled.

Picton was placed on half pay; he returned to Poyston and remained for twelve years in obscurity. About 1793 he fought a duel with an Irishman, Charles Hassall, in which he suffered a gunshot wound to the throat that permanently affected his voice and rendered him hoarse. Towards the end of 1794, frustrated that his applications to London brought no offer of employment, he boarded a merchant ship bound for the West Indies, trusting that Sir John Vaughan, commander-in-chief of the Leeward Islands and a fellow Welshman, would make him welcome.

Picton quickly impressed Vaughan with his unaffected manner and imposing physical presence. He was just the kind of disciplinarian needed in the unhealthy conditions that saw 35,000 British troops perish in the Caribbean between 1793 and 1798, mostly from yellow fever. When Vaughan himself died in Martinique in August 1795 Picton's position became precarious; but since Vaughan's replacement was the no-nonsense Scot Sir Ralph Abercromby, who had known his uncle William, Picton decided to await his arrival. Abercromby placed a high priority on esprit de corps, and his good impressions of Picton were confirmed during the campaign at St Lucia in May 1796, when Picton distinguished himself sufficiently to be recommended for a lieutenant-colonelcy. After accompanying Abercromby in the attack on the island of St Vincent, he sailed with him for England. It was during their return voyage to England that Spain entered the war on the French side and the island of Trinidad took on greater strategic significance. On 17 February 1797, having returned to the Caribbean, Abercromby led a fleet bearing 8000 men into the Gulf of Paria, and the following day the governor of Trinidad, Don José María Chacón, signed the terms of capitulation. When Abercromby left Trinidad shortly afterwards he appointed Picton commandant and military governor, with instructions to administer Spanish law as well as he could and to do justice according to his conscience.

Picton applied himself to remedy the civil disorder that prevailed on an island renowned as a haven for runaway slaves and deserting soldiers. Hampered by the smallness of his force of only 520 fit men, he made an early example of mutineers and established a system of police over the whole island by improving the road communications. There were thirty-five executions during Picton's governorship, the majority in his first year. The gallows were conspicuous on Port of Spain's busy waterfront and the governor was often there to inform new arrivals of his penal system. He was equally severe with the slaves, who amounted to 10,000 of the island's total population of nearly 18,000. Port of Spain's steamy gaol had long served as a correction centre that administered flogging, branding, ear-clipping, and the staking out of reprobates in the infamous cachots brûlants. It was now full to overflowing as Picton, who published his own slave code, sought to make slave discipline the backbone of his new order. In April 1797 he reported that perfect tranquillity prevailed throughout the colony. Some time later he took a mistress to live with him at Government House on the strand of Port of Spain: Rosetta Smith was a vivacious, Spanish-speaking woman of mixed race, half his own age, with whom he would have four children in five years.

With the island peaceful, Picton wrote to London extolling Trinidad as the perfect centre for trade with the South American continent. Aware of the discontent of americanos with the dead hand of Spanish mercantile protectionism, he suggested that a small invasion would be sufficient to mobilize an insurrection that would spread throughout the continent. He entertained americanos at Government House and sent small raids across the gulf. The governors of Caracas and British Guiana put $20,000 on his head, which prompted an ironic reply from the now confident Picton. London raised his annual salary to £1200, though his actual income from investments in the island was doubtless several times that figure. His deeper plans came to nought, however, since London was more concerned about Britain's ability to resist invasion by Napoleon than about launching one of its own. None the less, his dispatches on the subject probably helped Trinidad remain a British possession in the peace of 1801, and he was promoted brigadier-general on 22 October 1801.

The vigour of Picton's rule had made him enemies, however, especially among the new British immigrants. A liberal wind was blowing and concessions had to be made to the constitutionalists. Picton was informed that the island would henceforth be under the control of three commissioners, with Colonel William Fullarton and Commodore Samuel Hood above him. He felt 'degraded in the eyes of the world' (Picton, Evidence, xv). Fullarton, a well-connected Scot, arrived on 4 January 1803 and within weeks visited the gaol, which he found so wretched that he urged the building of a new one. He moved in council for certified statements of all the criminal proceedings that had taken place since the island became British territory. On 18 February, the sixth anniversary of the conquest, Picton tendered his resignation, remaining in post only until London notified its acceptance. Four days later Samuel Hood arrived, but within a short time he too had resigned in sympathy with Picton. The Spanish and French planters, who had never known such stability on the island, petitioned the king to reject Picton's resignation. On 14 June Brigadier-General Frederick Maitland arrived with the news that he was to supersede Picton as military commander. That same evening Picton said farewell to Rosetta and his children and sailed from Port of Spain, never to return.

The London trials

After serving briefly under Lieutenant-General Grinfield in the recapture of St Lucia and then Tobago from the French, Picton pressed on to London, where he learned that Fullarton had left Trinidad and had preferred criminal charges against him. In December 1803 he was arrested by order of the privy council and bailed by his uncle William for £40,000, an enormous sum that virtually presumed his guilt. The main indictment charged him with the unlawful application of torture to extort confession from one Luisa Calderón respecting a robbery in Port of Spain, the woman being thirteen years old, it was alleged, at the time of her imprisonment in December 1801. Luisa Calderón in fact had cohabited with a trader, Pedro Ruiz, and she had conspired with her paramour, Carlos González, to rob Ruiz. There was little doubt of their guilt, but the woman had refused to give evidence. In accordance with Spanish law the alcalde, Monsieur Begorrat, requested recourse to the ‘picket’ in order to 'apply the question', to which the governor acceded as a matter of routine. The picket consisted in hoisting the prisoner on a pulley in such a way that the big toe of one foot stood on a sharp-pointed picket. In this position Luisa Calderón soon confessed. González was convicted and punished by banishment, while Luisa was released in consideration of the imprisonment that she had already undergone.

Picton's trial came up before Lord Ellenborough in the court of king's bench on 24 February 1806, the two intervening years having seen an exchange of pamphlets on the part of Fullarton, Picton, and their respective supporters. The prosecutor, William Garrow, was renowned for his bruising style of cross-examination. During the trial he displayed a lurid illustration of the picket both to the jury and Luisa Calderón, whom he asked to demonstrate the torture, adding that it should henceforth be known as 'Pictoning' rather than 'picketing'. As a final ploy he produced a copy of the Recopilación de las leyes, an ancient schedule of Spanish law as it applied in the colonies. He summoned a lawyer, Pedro Vargas, who, like Luisa, had been brought over by Fullarton especially for the trial, and had him confirm that the Recopilación made no mention of the picket. Picton's defence lawyer, Robert Dallas, was outmanoeuvred, especially as he was denied access to the Recopilación. A technical verdict of guilty was returned and a new trial moved for.

Before the second trial on 11 June 1808 matters changed in Picton's favour. He gained from the support of Hood, now a national hero after his daring exploits against the French off Rochefort, where he lost an arm. Hood was the popular choice when he stood at the hustings for the Westminster by-election. His opponents retaliated with a poem published anonymously, 'The Picton Veil, or, The Hood of Westminster'; but when Fullarton interceded at the hustings in an attempt to associate Hood with misdeeds in Trinidad, he was shouted down by the mob. Fullarton died an unhappy man in February 1808, leaving his wife the forlorn hope of repairing his reputation. In the second trial Dallas was sufficiently well versed in the Recopilación to discredit Vargas's evidence. A special verdict was returned:

That by the law of Spain torture existed in the island of Trinidad at the time of the cession to Great Britain, and that no malice existed in the mind of the defendant against Luisa Calderón independent of the illegality of the act.

State trials, 30.870

This partly exonerated Picton, though it still found him guilty of an illegal act. Effectively it said that he had the right to sanction torture under Spanish law, but not as the island's British governor. When the people of Trinidad subscribed £4000 towards Picton's legal expenses, he returned the money to relieve those who had recently suffered in the disastrous fire in Port of Spain. The old duke of Queensberry offered to assist Picton in his legal expenses with a sum of £10,000, but Picton again graciously declined, as his uncle had supplied him with the necessary funds.

The Peninsula

In July 1809 Picton joined the ‘grand expedition’ to Flushing (Vlissingen). Glad to be back on active duty, he had misgivings about sending so large a force on a diversionary exercise in support of Britain's Austrian allies. Although he was appointed governor of Flushing after participating in the siege and capture of the town, he was soon invalided home, suffering from the epidemic Walcheren fever which thereafter affected his eyes. In January 1810 he received orders to join the army in Portugal and was placed in command of the 3rd division, which consisted of the brigades of Colonel Henry Mackinnon and Major-General Stafford Lightburne. At a welcoming parade Picton singled out two straggling Connaught Rangers who had arrived with a stolen goat. A drumhead court martial saw the men flogged in the presence of the entire division. Picton had started as he meant to go on, imposing the rule of discipline. He was acutely aware of the fragility of Wellington's 24,000-strong army and saw the need for discipline in fighting what would be a prolonged, defensive campaign. The army's spirit, however, was helped by the daring manoeuvres of Robert Craufurd and the light division, though Picton sometimes thought them foolhardy. On 24 July 1810 Craufurd overextended himself by engaging the enemy at the River Côa before Almeida fortress. Picton has been blamed by some for not bringing up the 3rd division to support Craufurd, but this was consistent with Wellington's strategy of avoiding a general action. Wellington said as much when he remarked that Craufurd had enough time to retreat across the river 'twice over' (Supplementary Despatches, 6.564).

After Masséna entered Portugal and secured Coimbra, Wellington took up a position on the reverse slope of the Busaco Ridge, where Picton was posted to defend the pass from São António de Cántaro to Palheiros, an area about a mile and a half in extent. The French attack on 27 September 1810 was directed mainly on the pass, but so incessant a fire was maintained by the 3rd division that the French were ultimately compelled to abandon the attempt. The 3rd's role in this battle led to their being known henceforth as ‘the fighting division’. Picton himself, in his first major battle, was sorely pressed co-ordinating his defensive positions over the extended line. By 7 October the allied army had retired behind the virtually impregnable lines of Torres Vedras, leaving Masséna, whose army was more than twice as strong, to forage land that had been laid waste. During the winter the French made no serious attempt on the allied lines, and on 4 March 1811 their retreat began, with the allies in hot pursuit. In this the 3rd division was again prominent, encountering the enemy's rearguard near Pombal and then harassing them all the way to Guarda. By 5 April only Almeida remained in French hands in the whole of Portugal. The battle of Fuentes de Oñoro on 3 and 5 May saw the Connaught Rangers, a mainstay of Picton's command, distinguish themselves once more.

Picton then proceeded to take up his position for the investment of Badajoz, having been too far removed to participate in the indecisive battle of Albuera. Five weeks later the siege was raised after two assaults on the battlements came to naught, partly because of inadequate ladders. This débâcle left Picton in low spirits for some time, his eyes streaming again with a recurrence of the Walcheren fever. Having moved his division in the direction of Ciudad Rodrigo, he was caught unprepared on 25 September, when Montbrun at the head of fifteen squadrons of cavalry pressed him hard. Picton saw that nothing but a rapid and regular movement upon Fuenteguinaldo could save his men from being cut off. For 6 miles he led the 3rd division across a level plain, inspiring it with his coolness as the enemy's cavalry probed for weakness. Each battalion had in turn to form the rearguard and keep back the cavalry by a volley. In this way the division was saved by its discipline and by Picton's determination to continue his march.

In January 1812 Picton joined the siege of Ciudad Rodrigo. On the icy evening of the 19th his division assaulted the right or great breach, while Craufurd's division stormed the smaller breach. Both assaults were successful, though Craufurd was killed, as was Mackinnon. The subsequent sack of the town was much restrained by Picton's presence. In March 1812 the formidable fortress of Badajoz was again invested, the assault taking place on 6 April. The 3rd division was led in person by Picton, who, though wounded in the action, continued to urge on his men from the ditch until the stupendous walls were scaled and the castle stronghold taken. This triumph, in what was intended to be a secondary assault, came at a timely moment, for Wellington, appalled at the loss of life incurred by the main attack, had thought of withdrawing. Picton's wound laid him up during the shameless sack that followed. Later he gave a guinea to each survivor in his division, but, conscious of the terrible losses that the 3rd had suffered, he wrote home in sombre vein: 'military reputation is not to be purchased without blood, and ambition has nothing to do with Humanity' (Edwards, 13.12).

Picton went to Salamanca, but was too ill with fever to take part in the ensuing battle. In July he was invalided home, where rest at Cheltenham restored his health. By November he was well enough to stand for parliament as prospective tory member for the Pembroke boroughs, and that winter he bought a stately pile with much land attached at Iscoed, on the Tywi south of Carmarthen, which cost him £30,000. By the time he returned to the Peninsula in the spring of 1813 he had been invested as a knight of the Bath and duly elected to the Commons. On 21 June the retreating French turned to hold a strong position in front of Vitoria. The battle began early in the morning, but by noon, Picton, who had been instructed to wait for Dalhousie's 7th division, was so impatient at the latter's tardiness that he decided to force the passage of the River Zadorra and carry the heights in the centre. This manoeuvre was executed so rapidly that he was in possession of the commanding ground before the enemy were aware of his design. The ‘fighting division’ was the most heavily engaged in the action and sustained losses of nearly 1800 men in killed and wounded, more than a third of the total allied loss in the battle.

The road to Waterloo

Picton saw relatively little action in the Pyrenees and returned for a time to take his seat in the Commons, where, on 11 November 1813 the speaker delivered the house's unanimous thanks for his exertions in the Peninsula. He replied with difficulty, stressing the quality of the men whom he was proud to lead. In December he resumed command of the 3rd division, having declined command of the Catalonian army. Pamplona had now fallen and the allied army poured into the plains of France. When Soult took up a defensive position at Orthez, Wellington attacked on 27 February 1814 and, much as at Vitoria, employed Picton's 3rd against the centre and left flank of the French, which, after several hours' fighting, they succeeded in forcing back. Soult covered his retreat with infantry and the allied army followed him to Tarbes and then Toulouse, delayed by swollen rivers and demolished bridges. On Easter day, 10 April 1814, Picton was instructed to make a series of feint attacks across the Languedoc Canal on the northern side of Toulouse. However, with William Carr Beresford delayed by mud and the Spanish driven back by Soult, he took matters into his own hands and impetuously decided on a committed assault. This met with less success than at Vitoria and, after three charges at the redoubts covering the Jumeaux Bridge, he was obliged to retreat with heavy loss. The victorious allies nevertheless entered Toulouse on the 13th, just days before the news arrived of Napoleon's abdication.

On the breakup of the 3rd division the officers presented Picton with a plate service. Peerages were conferred on Beresford, Thomas Graham, Rowland Hill, John Hope, and Stapleton Cotton, but Picton's friends were greatly disappointed that he was left unrewarded. Picton pointedly observed: 'If the coronet were lying on the crown of a breach, I should have as good a chance as any of them' (Robinson, 2.323). Correspondence took place in the newspapers, and it was implausibly stated that the honours had been bestowed only on those officers who had held distinct commands. On 24 June 1814 Picton received, for the seventh time, the unanimous thanks of the Commons. He retired to Wales and devoted himself to the improvement of his estate. Upon the extension of the Order of the Bath, early in 1815, he was promoted to be a knight grand cross.

On Napoleon's escape from Elba, Picton was called upon to join Wellington, having been assured that he would be employed under the duke's orders alone. After arriving at Brussels on 15 June 1815, he was appointed to the command of the 5th division, which consisted of brigades under generals James Kempt and Denis Pack, together with a Hanoverian brigade and a mixed British–Hanoverian battery—some 7000 men in all. Picton was attending the duchess of Richmond's ball in Brussels when news came that the French had crossed the Sambre at Charleroi. Before daylight on the 16th his 5th division was marching south towards the enclosed field of Quatre-Bras. Picton arrived at 2.30 p.m. and pushed his men forward to restore the fortunes of the failing Dutch and Belgian troops and then held them defiant in the face of repeated cavalry charges by the French under Ney. The decisive moment came when Picton unexpectedly ordered his infantry to charge the French cavalry. During the fight Picton was hit by a ball, which broke his ribs, but he kept knowledge of the wound from all but his aide-de-camp, Tyler, who helped bind it up. On the morning of 17 June, with the Prussians defeated at Ligny, Picton fell back on Waterloo in pouring rain. While the allies slept on their arms at Waterloo, Picton spent the night in lodgings in severe pain.

On the morning of the 18th Picton's division was posted on the Wavre Road, behind the broken hedge that stood 400 yards above La Haye-Sainte Farm and close to the crossroads with an elm tree that served as Wellington's command post. Delayed by the wet conditions, the French cannonade did not commence until 11.30 a.m., while the first major attack by D'Erlon's 18,000-strong infantry came at 1 p.m. When these masses came up the ridge to the constant drumming of the pas de charge, the Dutch–Belgian light brigade in front fired only token shots before it turned and fled. At this critical moment Picton ordered the Peninsular generals Pack and Kempt to advance their brigades and fill the gap. A desperate struggle ensued, and Picton, seeing them swallowed up by the sheer weight of enemy ranks, gave his last command astride his cob: 'Charge!' he bellowed, waving them on with his sword—'Charge! Hurrah! Hurrah!'—whereupon a musket ball struck him on the temple and he fell back dead.

Picton's corpse was conveyed to London, via Deal and Canterbury. The funeral took place from his house, 21 Edward Street, Portman Square, on 3 July 1815, and he was buried in the family vault in St George's, Hanover Square. In 1828 a monument was erected to his memory at Carmarthen by public subscription, the king contributing 100 guineas. The statue of Picton it originally bore was removed in 1846, when the monument was made sturdier. On 8 June 1859, after some debate in the newspapers, a reinterment ceremony took place, and Picton's remains were removed to St Paul's Cathedral in a formal procession and placed near Wellington's with a monument showing a bust of Picton. He is the only Welshman to be buried at St Paul's, and a marble statue of him stands in the City Hall, Cardiff, alongside eleven others known as the ‘Heroes of Wales’. On 9 June, a day before his departure for Flanders, Picton had made a new will. In this he appointed his brother the Revd Edward Picton his major beneficiary, but he also left £1000 each to his four children by Rosetta Smith in Trinidad.

Picton arguably did not receive the recognition he was due in his own lifetime, his overzealousness in Trinidad having cast a long shadow. He was not the sort of man to be favoured by society. As Wellington famously said on one occasion: 'I found him a rough, foul-mouthed devil as ever lived, but', the duke added, 'no man could do better in different services I assigned to him' (Stanhope, 50). If sometimes impetuous, he was a soldier of undaunted courage, as he showed at Badajoz and when concealing his wounds at Waterloo. A stern disciplinarian, he was quick to understand his commander's deep-laid plans and he proved himself the most valuable of Wellington's generals in the Peninisula.


  • R. Havard, Wellington's Welsh general: a life of Sir Thomas Picton (1996)
  • E. Edwards, ‘Some unpublished letters of Sir Thomas Picton’, West Wales Historical Records, 12 (1927), 133–66
  • E. Edwards, ‘Some unpublished letters of Sir Thomas Picton’, West Wales Historical Records, 13 (1928), 1–32
  • F. Myatt, Peninsular general: Sir Thomas Picton, 1758–1815 (1980)
  • H. B. Robinson, Memoirs of Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Picton, 2 vols. (1836)
  • Picton's letters, NL Wales, MSS 5416E, 21687E, 16704E, 18428E, 14005E, 14091E, 11091E
  • schedule of Picton family documents, NL Wales, no. 40, no. 96
  • Supplementary despatches (correspondence) and memoranda of Field Marshal Arthur, duke of Wellington, ed. A. R. Wellesley, second duke of Wellington, 15 vols. (1858–72), vols. 1–11
  • G. Picton, ‘General Sir Thomas Picton and the Pictons of Pembrokeshire’, Pembrokeshire Historian, 1 (1959), 41–59
  • B. P. Swann, ‘Sir Thomas Picton: some unpublished facts about his career and relations’, Dyfed Family History Journal/Cymdeithas Hanes Teuluoedd Dyfed, 1 (1984), 172–5
  • F. Myatt, British sieges of the Peninsular War (1987)
  • V. S. Naipaul, The loss of El Dorado (1969)
  • State trials, vol. 30
  • D. Thomas, ed., State trials: the public conscience, 2 (1977), 169–244
  • T. Picton, Letter addressed to the Right Honourable Lord Hobart (1804)
  • T. Picton, Evidence taken at Port of Spain in the case of Luisa Calderón, with a letter addressed to Samuel Hood (1806)
  • W. Fullarton, A statement, letters and documents, respecting the affairs of Trinidad (1804)
  • P. F. McCallum, Travels in Trinidad (1805)
  • The general orders of Field Marshal the duke of Wellington, ed. J. Gurwood, 2nd edn (1837)


  • BL, letter-book as governor of Trinidad, Add. MS 36870
  • NL Wales, family papers
  • NL Wales, letters
  • NL Wales, letters to Lewis Flanagan
  • NL Wales, letters to Joseph Marryat
  • priv. coll., letters to Frederick Maitland [formerly on loan to NAM]


  • W. Daniell, etching, pubd 1809 (after G. Dance), BM, NPG
  • M. A. Shee, oils, 1812, NPG [see illus.]
  • W. Beechey, oils, 1815, Wellington Museum, London
  • line engraving, 1815, BM, NPG; repro. in C. Kelly, History of the French Revolution (1815)
  • S. Gahagan, marble bust on monument, 1816, St Paul's Cathedral, London

Wealth at Death

£35,000 value of estate at Iscoed, Carmarthenshire; investments in the West Indies; inherited sizeable fortune and estate from uncle

National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth
W. Cobbett, ed. T. B. Howell & T. J. Howell, 34 vols. (1809–28)