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Ball, Thomas (1835 - 1886). SOLDIER OF EMPIRE

Thomas Ball 1835 – 1886


We first find Thomas Ball in 1841 aged seven living in Ringstead, with his parents Daniel, a shepherd, and Phoebe and his brothers, “Daniel, John, James, Samuel and Elisher”. On 12 September of the same year he is baptised at Ringstead Parish Church with three of his brothers. Perhaps there was a reduction for a job lot. In 1851 he is still living with his parents but at seventeen he is now an agricultural labourer.

Then, like his siblings George, Daniel, Sarah and John and his younger brother Elisha, he disappears from the censuses. Most have gone to the New World but George and Thomas prove more elusive to trace although fragments of Thomas's life appear. Unlike Elisha,  he does not reappear again in Ringstead with children whose birth places tell of his travels.

There is one possible siting. On a Stray Marriages site I found the following:

BALL Thomas of Raunds, age 21 bachelor, father Daniel, shepherd Sarah GALE otp age 21, spinster, father Henry, carpenter 18 Oct 1855 Pertenhall BDF {Bedfordshire}

It does give his home parish as Raunds rather than Ringstead but it seems too much of a coincidence: same name, same age, same father with same occupation! Also I cannot find any siting of another Thomas Ball in later censuses to fit this same description.  Assuming that this is the correct marriage there is more confusion because some five years later, in the 1861 Census Sarah is still living with her parents, Henry and Mary, in Pertenhall, and is surnamed Gale, not Ball. It appears to show her as married and certainly there is a marriage certificate. By 1871 she has disappeared and I have been unable to trace her. In 1881 her mother, Mary Gale, now aged 79 and a widow is visiting George Pearson, a labourer, living in "The Bear, St. Mary's Street, St Neots in Huntingdonshire. George's wife is Sarah, aged 45 and born in Pertenhall. Could this be Sarah Gale? I have not yet traced any marriage. In 1891 George, now a gardener, and Sarah are living in Yaxley in Huntingdonshire.

Of course this may all be a false trail but Thomas's story is one of alleyways and cul-de-sacs. If we have the right person, the fact that she is put as Sarah Gale and not Ball is a strong indicator that something has gone wrong. There is no sign of Thomas either in 1861 or 1871

In the 1881 Census, thirty years after his last appearance, we find a Thomas Ball living at 1 London Wharf, High Street, Chatham, Kent. This Thomas is only 37 (not 47 as we would expect) but it does show his birthplace as Ringstead, Northants. His wife is Emily J Ball aged 31 and born in Cathrington, Hampshire. They have a son Edgar J aged two months old and born in Chatham, Kent. Thomas is also shown as a Chelsea Pensioner so we know that he had been in the army. Although the Census describes them as married, I have been unable to find a record of their wedding.

Looking at the birth certificate for Edgar John Peter Ball we see that Emily’s maiden name was Ellis. Emily too is something of a mystery and she variously is shown in the Censuses as coming from Cathrington, Chichester and Frogmore. It also shows Thomas as a labourer so he is still trying to earn a living. A Pensioner was allowed to work for a living, for a pension would not have been enough to live on. The great majority of Chelsea Pensioners received outpayments and did not lodge in Chelsea and wear the familiar red uniform.

With this lead we turn to the British Army Records for Chelsea Pensioners in the National Archives of the Public Record Office in Kew (and now increasingly online). Suddenly those missing years are filled in. Here is one of a number of Ringstead farm labourers who has left the security, and insecurity, of a Northamptonshire village for a world full of excitement and danger but one which gave him the chance of earning a living.

What we see are his discharge papers recording his service and his entitlement to a pension. It also tells us a little about the man. He was 5 feet 8 inches tall, of fresh complexion with grey eyes and brown hair. His only scar is from a cut on the end of the forefinger of his left hand. Few coming out of the army would have got away so lightly.

It also confirms that he was born in Ringstead and was a labourer before signing up. He "attested" for the 48th, The Northamptonshire Regiment of Foot , at Northampton on 28th September 1857, at the age of 21 years 10 months which means that he was born in November 1835. Was his enlistment connected to his 'marriage' to Sarah, some two years earlier?

He had been in the army for 21 years so where had Private 2548 Thomas Ball been up to his final discharge on 8th October 1878? We are told that for the first 7 years 14 days he had been a private in the 48th but that on 11th October 1864 he transferred to the 3rd Rifle Brigade with whom he remained until his discharge. It is also recorded that he served abroad for 13 years 77 days of which 28 days were in Gibraltar and 13 years 49 days in India.

The Northamptonshire Regiment of Foot had fought in the Crimean War with distinction and when that conflict had finished moved first to Malta and then Gibraltar for about a year.  The Northamptonshire Militia Regiment had re-embodied (re-formed) in 1857 when news came of the Indian Mutiny. It assembled on 27th October 1857 and proceeded by rail to Plymouth on 4th December. The militia remained in Plymouth until May 1858 when it received orders to return to Northampton to be disembodied. Did Thomas travel down with the Militia and then sail out to join the regular Northamptonshire Regiment in Gibralter. perhaps as one of the replacements for the losses suffered in the Crimea. He was only there for a month when orders were received from London and the regiment embarked for India. Apparently, the 48th had behaved well in Gibraltar and they were given a hearty send-off by crowds of local people as they marched to the docks behind various regimental bands.

SS Hindoostan (from an Indian stamp isued in 1997)

It was the 15th September 1858 when the regiment left Gibralter on the steam transport ship Jura and a week later landed in Alexandria in Egypt. It was transported by rail to the terminus but from there travelled by donkey across the desert to Suez. Thomas and the other soldiers would have seen the construction of the great canal in progress but it would be another 11 years before it was opened for shipping. At Suez they boarded the P & O Steamer Hindoostan and after an unpleasant overcrowded voyage, (there were only enough bunks for half the men), arrived in Calcutta on 20th October They had been at sea for a month and must have been grateful to get their own bunks in the barracks at Barrackpore. It was on the Barrackpore (Barrackpur) parade ground that a single sepoy had first refused to use the alleged "cow and pig fat" bullets, the action that had triggered the rising.

The regiment had just missed the vicious fighting of the Indian Mutiny and it seems that its time in India was comparatively uneventful. They were stationed, over the next seven years, at Allahabad, Calpee, Cawnpore, Lucknow and Calcutta. These had had been places where the rising had been at its most vicious. It is not for us here to allot guilt but, certainly, terrible massacres were carried out by both sides. Although armed hostilities were over it must have been a tense time both between British and Indian soldiers in the army but also between the army and the civilain population. It was because of the Mutiny that India came directly under the Crown rather than the East India Company.

On 1st January  1865 the Northamptonshire Regiment of Foot sailed for home on the S.S. Patrician but Private Thomas Ball was not with them. Nearly three months earlier, on 11th October 1864, he had transferred to the Third Battalion of the Rifle Brigade. We can only speculate as to his reasons for this move. What seems certain is that he realised that this would prolong his time in India. Perhaps he enjoyed the life in the sub-continent and he seems to have been a model soldier. Although he was never promoted, he was never court-martialled and gained five good conduct badges and one good conduct medal in his career. There is also the possibility that we are right in our unproved theory that something had gone very wrong in his marriage and he wanted to keep out of England. The records we have do not help and give no details of his marital status or children.

 Rifle Brigade Uniforms 1871

History of the Rifle Brigade (The Prince Consort's Own). William Henry Cope

The Rifle Brigade was a famous fighting force with their colonel being Field Marshall H.R.H. The Prince of Wales. Its title usually had "Prince Consort's Own" in brackets after the brigade name. It had been formed in 1806 (check) to make use of the new more accurate rifles in the Napoleonic Wars and was famous for having a green, rather than the usual red, uniform. It is difficult to work out if the two forces were stationed close to each other at the time of Thomas's transfer, but it does not seem likely with the 48th in the east near Calcutta and the Third Battalion of the Rifle Brigade in the west around Rawal Pindee (Rawalpindi). Perhaps Thomas and others who elected to stay travelled partly by the Indian railway system which was one of the legacies that the British left.


A Murree bridge in 1865. Could this be the road that Thomas worked on?


The 3rd battalion moved around the North-West area in what is now Pakistan : from the headquarters at Rawal Pindee to Peshawar and Nowshera. In 1866 and 1867 they worked on a road from Murree to Abbottabad. Thomas was probably one of these road-makers because on 26th April 1867 he was re-engaged at Rawal Pindee.

                            North West India

       From the New Pictorial Atlas of the World (Odhams Press. No date)

On January 10th 1869 the 3rd Battalion left Rawal Pindee and marched to Moradabad and Seetapore. From there they travelled by rail to Allahabad and on to Bombay. Their tour of duty was over and on 21st November 1870 the brigade embarked on H.M. Troopship Euphrates. This time Thomas was on board.

On the way home they stopped at Aden for a week before leaving on December 7th on the final lap of their journey on the Troopship Seraphis . The brigade finally arrived in Portsmouth harbour on 30th December 1871. Even though they had spent much of the time in the cooler highlands of  north-west India an English winter must have come as something of a shock. They occupied the Clarence barracks and were joined by the Depot companies from Chatham. Over the next six years the Battalion moved between Exeter, Darmoor, Plymouth and Winchester before moving to their permanent barracks in Chatham. Each year there would be manoeuvres but Thomas would have no more active service. By luck he had missed both the terrible European and Indian conflicts.

One can only speculate as to Thomas's state of mind on returning home. There is no sign that he went to see his relatives and old friends in Ringstead. Was he pleased to see his home shores after so many years or was he worried about just what awaited him in England.

Thomas left the army with a £5 gratuity and a good conduct medal for his years of service. He also had a small "Chelsea Pension". He still had to work as a labourer, for a pension was not enough to live on. It is also about this time that he probably met a woman called Emily Ellis. The Censuses variously give her birthplace at various places in Hampshire so it is possible that they met while Thomas was stationed or on manouevres in the south west. On his discharge form, in September 1878, he gives his intended place of residence as No. 4 Lower Church Path, New Brompton, Chatham.

As we have seen in 1881 his residence is given as 1 London Wharf, High Street, Chatham and his son Edgar is just two months old so Emily and Thomas  met , if not before he left the army, at least shortly after. It must have been something of a change for an army man in his forties, used to barracks and army discipline, to find himself with a wife and a young family. It is possible that his labouring work was in one of Chatham's military establishments so perhaps he did find an environment with which he was familiar.

Unfortunately for Thomas he was not long to enjoy his new life. After many years of living in the tropics and enduring the tough dangerous life of a soldier, on the 11th April 1886 at Old Luton Road, Chatham, he died, a civilian in England, aged just forty nine. His death certificate records that he is an army pensioner. It also records that he died of Phthisis Pulmonaris an old name for Tuberculosis (TB), a feared disease in the nineteenth century and one that is still a killer in the world today. It was rife in England at this time and much of the milk was contaminated with it.

For Emily his death also meant that she would have to struggle to bring up her young family. The 1891 Census shows Emily Ball, as a widow, aged 41, with her sons Edgar aged 9 and Charles aged 7, both of whom were born in Chatham. She now lives at Church Path, Chatham. Emily is a laundress, one of the occupations resorted to by women who feared the workhouse. This is the address (or close to it) given by Thomas at his discharge. Perhaps it was a friend or relative of his or Emily's which they stayed in for a time after he came out of the army and which she either rented or inherited some time after his death.

In 1901 Emily, now 50, is living with her two sons, Edgar (20) and Charles (19) at 10 Butter Farm (?) Street, Gillingham. She also has a boarder, Jesse Woods, a sixty-five year old house painter from Leeds. It does not show Emily as working but the two sons are both Assistant Corn Factors. By 1911 Emily is aged 68 and shown as coming from Frogmore in Hampshire. She is living at 17 Albany Road Gillingham, still with her two sons, now 30 and 28 and unmarried. Edgar is a carter for the District Council and Charles a General Labourer at the Government Shipyard. For the first time, in 1911, the residents filled in the Census forms themselves. In this case it was Edgar, and we must presume that her age is correct and that she was born in about 1842, rather than the 1850 that we might expect.

Could Edgar have been wrong or had she lied about her age all these years? I believe that Edgar married Olive Trice in 1915 in the Medway District and that Emily died in 1920. Did Thomas tell Emily and his sons of those times in India and have they become part of a family tradition or has Thomas's life, like most, been  lost to his future family. 


Censuses 1841, 1851, 1861, 1871. 1881, 1891, 1901, 1911

Ringstead BMD (NRO)

Birth Certificate for Edgar John Peter Ball 24th January 1881

Death Certificate for Thomas Ball

England & Wales FreeBMD Marriage Index 1837 - 1915 (Oct - Dec 1855 St Neots District Vol 3b p 727)

British Service Records - Other Ranks 1760 - 1913 (NA Ref. WO97 / 2158 / 71 Public Record Office) and transcribed on 

History of the Northamptonshire Regiment 1742 - 1934. Lieut - Colonel Russell Gurney (Gale & Polden Ltd. Aldershot 1935).

History of the Rifle Brigade (The Prince Consort's Own). William Henry Cope. (Chatto and Windus 1877). This book has been reprinted and has also been digitised on

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