MATHEWS, ROBERT, army officer; m. 22 Nov. 1798 Mary Simpson in London, England; d. 5 July 1814 in Chelsea Hospital, London.
Robert Mathews may have come from Scotland, where his father was living in 1786. On 28 Feb. 1761 he was commissioned an ensign in the 8th Foot, then part of a British contingent in Germany under Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick, and he was undoubtedly present at the battles of Vellinghausen (1761) and Wilhelmstahl (1762). From 1768 Mathews was stationed in the province of Quebec; in March 1770 he purchased a lieutenancy, and on 10 April 1775 he obtained the adjutancy. During the early years of the American Revolutionary War Mathews was at the regimental headquarters of Fort Niagara (near Youngstown, N.Y.). On 5 July 1777 he was promoted captain.
Thus far Mathews’s career had been indistinguishable from those of hundreds of his fellow officers, but during a sojourn in Quebec in the summer of 1778 he met the new governor, Frederick Haldimand. Whatever the circumstances, the two men evidently got along well. Mathews mentioned his qualifications in engineering to Haldimand, who in August dispatched him to Niagara with orders to carry on minor works as necessary. In April 1779 Captain Edward Foy, Haldimand’s military secretary, died. The same month, with the help of Francis Le Maistre, deputy adjutant general in the province, parts of letters Mathews had written about the upper posts were read to Haldimand. Le Maistre reported to Mathews that the governor seemed well pleased with the observations and added that this favourable reception might “turn to Your Advantage.” It did. One month later Mathews was on his way to Quebec, there to take up his new position as Haldimand’s military secretary.
For the remainder of Haldimand’s governorship Mathews would perform this task, mainly at Quebec but with the occasional side-trip elsewhere. He was to receive all incoming correspondence dealing with military matters inside the province, advise the governor on concerns that required his response, prepare letters for his signature (several clerks actually wrote the letters), and deal with business that did not require Haldimand’s attention. Haldimand soon gave Mathews increasing responsibility, evidence of the rapport that developed between the two men. The topics covered in the correspondence were quite diverse. For instance, in the 11 days between 31 Jan. and 10 Feb. 1780 Mathews wrote to Major Christopher Carleton at Île aux Noix about trespassers near the fort; to Captain George Dame of Butler’s Rangers ordering him to join his corps at Fort Niagara; to Brigadier-General Allan Maclean* at Montreal about payment for rum furnished to the troops; to Lieutenant-Colonel Barrimore Matthew St Leger* at Sorel stating Haldimand’s concern about a quarrel between St Leger and the surgeon Charles Blake; to Nathaniel Day, chief commissary in the province, about the transportation of goods to the Upper Lakes posts through the Coteau-du-Lac canal; to Captain Daniel McAlpin about the arrangements for loyalists in Montreal; and to Robert Rogers* recommending that he leave with his officers to join the men he had allegedly raised for the King’s Rangers. The position of secretary came to be one of great importance as a result of Mathews’s close daily contact with the governor, and his advice was doubtless sought unofficially by hopeful petitioners. At the same time, it is probable that Mathews had comparatively little influence with Haldimand because the two men were in agreement on most issues. An uncomplaining and intensely loyal subordinate, Mathews was among the few close friends of the normally reserved governor, and their personal relationship worked to his advantage. When in the summer of 1783 John Nairne wished to sell his majority in the 53rd Foot, Haldimand specified that his secretary was to be allowed to purchase the rank, an action which caused justifiable resentment among more senior captains.
As the war drew to a close, Mathews, like Haldimand, came to concern himself increasingly with the problems of provisioning and accommodating the loyalists who entered the province, and in the wake of the peace treaty, with the details of their settlement. Here too Haldimand gave him considerable leeway, and there is every reason to believe historian Alfred Leroy Burt’s assertion that the loyalists were greatly in his debt for his handling of many of the petty problems that inevitably arose.
Once back in London with Haldimand in early January 1785, Mathews performed small errands and assisted in settling the governor’s accounts and papers for a time. But by March 1786, with Sir Guy Carleton’s appointment as governor-in-chief of British North America impending, prospects for advancement had disappeared, and he gloomily contemplated selling out and returning to settle in the colony. Almost certainly with Haldimand’s approval, however, he petitioned Lord Sydney, the Home secretary, to request from Carleton an appointment as one of his aides-de-camp. Sydney was “much embarrassed” by this highly unusual and even brash step, but Carleton consented, and that summer Mathews returned to Quebec to prepare the way for the governor’s arrival. In May he had received a sinecure in the form of the lieutenant governorship of Antigua, another result of Haldimand’s prodding of the government.
Mathews’s second term in Quebec was uneventful. The post of aide-de-camp left him little to do, and just one year after his arrival he decided to join his regiment, whose headquarters were at Detroit (Mich.). He recorded with interest in his journal of the trip to Detroit the state of loyalist settlements along the route. Mathews was not impressed with the inhabitants of Detroit, describing them as “a sad set of Rascals” who were not above attempted bribery of the military authorities. There were frustrations in settling titles to lands and administering justice, yet when Mathews left in November one of his officers asserted that he departed “universally regretted . . . as he had been indefatigable in his endeavours to assist the settlement.” Despite the inclination of Governor Carleton (now Lord Dorchester) to retain him as aide-de-camp, Mathews was not interested in remaining much longer in the province, and when the 53rd departed in August 1789 he accompanied it. It is certain that he had quickly discovered his diminished importance in the new regime.
Mathews returned to his purely military career. When war broke out with France in 1793 be went to Flanders as part of a British expeditionary force. That October he greatly distinguished himself as commander of the 53rd in the successful defence of Nieuport (Nieuwpoort, Belgium) against a greatly superior French force, and was promoted lieutenant-colonel of the regiment as a reward. The following year he relinquished this position, and in 1800 he was appointed an inspector of army clothing. On 6 Oct. 1801 he became major of Chelsea Hospital, the British army institution for invalided and superannuated soldiers, and in this quiet retreat he ended his days. The Times obituary praised his “universal and active benevolence of mind . . . [and] urbanity of manners.” He was married to a noted Quebec beauty, who had the distinction of being the first love of Horatio Nelson. It is not known if there were any children.
Without the patronage of Frederick Haldimand, Robert Mathews would never have attained even the modest degree of success that he did. In settling the loyalists and arranging military matters, however, he displayed valuable talents. If he was unable to rise beyond a fairly low rank, it was principally a result of his patron’s position on the fringes of the British hierarchy.
BL, Add. mss 21661–892 (mfm. at PAC). PAC, MG 23, J9. PRO, WO 17/1493; 17/1496; 17/1572 (mfm. at PAC). Times (London), 11 July 1814. G.B., WO, Army list, 1763–1814. The register book of marriages belonging to the parish of St George, Hanover Square, in the county of Middlesex, ed. J. H. Chapman and G. J. Armytage (4v., London, 1896–97), 2: 191. C. G. T. Dean, The Royal Hospital, Chelsea . . . (London, 1950), 269, 307. J. R. B. Moulsdale, The King’s Shropshire Light Infantry (the 53rd/85th Regiment of Foot) (London, 1972), 5–6.