Entries in Smith (2)


Hardy, John (c 1796 - ) & Smith, George (c 1802 - ) TRANSPORTED?

Hardy, John (c 1796 - ) & Smith, George (c 1802 - ) TRANSPORTED?


The two men whose stories we are telling in this piece are like figures caught by a car’s headlights in a dark country lane. We are unable to see where they came from, and after their brief time in the headlights, they disappear into the darkness again.

It may be that other people may recognize their stories and tell us a little more about who they were and what happened to them.



Among those who were born, worked and died in the village, Ringstead had other people who stayed there for just a short time and moved on: the navvies for the railroad, the men who repaired the church and its bells, the vicars and schoolteachers. There would also be the drift of hawkers and gypsies, itinerant labourers and vagrants. And there would be those looking for easy money, the thieves and vagabonds.

We are not sure if John Hardy came into this last category for, as yet, we have failed to find him with any certainty either before the events in Ringstead or after he left Portsmouth some four years later. We know that he was born in about 1796 but we are not sure how local was his place of his birth.

We learn from a report in the Northampton Mercury of 21st October 1837 that a James Smith, who was a cordwainer, living in Ringstead but working for Mr. Mark Sharman of Wellingborough, took some leather goods to his own home. He saw them safe on Monday 21st August but then went harvesting on the Tuesday and did not return until the Wednesday. It was on the Thursday morning that he realised that the leather goods were missing. It appears that John Weekley who was a shepherd employed by Mr Hill, a local farmer. Had seen the ‘shop’ (probably workshop) broken open on the Tuesday and found a pair of tops lying on the threshold of the door

It was alleged by Ezra Weekley that he had also had leather goods stolen. He had been in his ‘shop’ on the Sunday 20th and then, like James Smith, went harvesting with his son for two or three days. When he returned he found a quantity of leather and shoemaking materials had gone. His son, John Weekley, found the shop door open on the Tuesday morning at 7 o’clock (the newspaper states the Monday but I think this is wrong) and some pieces of leather belonging to Mr Sharman lying on the threshold

So we discover from this evidence that the men were collecting their leather, from a factory owner or dealer in Wellingborough, and making up the shoes and being paid presumably on a piece-work rate. It may be that James Smith acted for Mr Sharman and was the carrier and middleman. We also see that they combined the shoemaking with working on the harvest. One would imagine that they were working in the Ringstead open fields, soon to be enclosed, but the fact that neither returned home could imply that they had gone to a nearby village to earn extra money by bringing in the harvest.

Ezra Weekley might well have needed to earn extra money. His first wife, Susannah Major, with whom he had six children, had died in 1834 and just before the theft, on 20th June 1837, he had married Mary Bates. Mary was just twenty-five and half Ezra’s age. It seems possible that Henry, a child born to Mary two years before Susannah’s death, was Ezra’s child and certainly he has the surname Weekley in 1841. Ezra went on to have five children with Mary before his death. In 1841 Ezra is put down as a labourer although in subsequent censuses he is a ‘shoemaker’. Did the Ringstead Enclosure of 1841 make it difficult for him to combine his shoemaking with other jobs as he had done previously?

John Hardy, after leaving Ringstead, had travelled to Tansor, further up the Nene beyond Oundle, and tried to sell the leather goods in the White Horse there. Unfortunately for John, the person he tried to sell the leather to, was John Garner, the local constable. Garner may also have been a shoemaker for he realised that the goods were worth some three times the fourteen shillings that Hardy was asking for them. He told John that they must be stolen by him or by somebody else Hardy insisted that they were his own property and, in some desperation, offered them for ten shillings. The constable whereupon took the goods off him and detained Hardy while he made enquiries.

The jury did not believe his story that he had found the goods and he was found guilty. On the 19th October 1837, he was sentenced to transportation for seven years and taken back to the Northampton gaol. Later, the convicted men were taken from Northampton to Portsmouth ready for transportation. Along with John were John Sykes and George Baker sentenced to life, John Bird and Matthew Brown for ten years, John Clare for fourteen years and Samuel Clare, James Suitor, John Tirrell, James Coalbeck, Joseph Loveridge, George Butler and Joseph Tomlinson for seven years.

We are not sure how they were all taken to Portsmouth although it is possible that for part of the journey at least they were taken by the new ‘railroad’ for we know that in 1833 this method was used. On the 8th November 1837 they were put on a prison hulk called the Leviathan to await transportation. The Leviathan had been launched in 1790 and fought in the Napoleonic Wars. At the Battle of Trafalgar, she had been near the front of the line led by Nelson in the Victory. When the wars finished she, like many others, was taken out of service and she would have been sailed to Portsmouth and anchored and much of her gear taken away. As always, it seems, the prison population was too large for the normal gaols and these hulks were used as floating prisons, especially for those who were to be transported.

Most people’s remembrance of the hulks will be from the episode of the escaped convict Magwitch, near the beginning of Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. Luckily we also have a firsthand account of the Leviathan by a man who was a prisoner on the hulk, in the summer of 1833, some four years earlier than John Hardy boarded her in chains. J. F. Mortlock in Experiences of a Convict writes:

At any rate I was no longer shut up in gaol, to me the most dreadful of punishments, now, I hopes, done for ever. This, however, as will be seen, turned out to be a mistaken expectation. The hulk, an old (Trafalgar) ninety-gun ship being very full, contained more than six hundred convicts (from starvation and discipline, tame as rabbits), housed on the three decks, which were divided into compartments, separated from each other by bulkheads, and from the gangway down the centre, by iron bars giving the appearance of a menagerie. Owing to the height of the wharf, alongside of which she lay, the larboard row of cells on the lower deck, was nearly in darkness and insufficiently ventilated. ‘New Chums’ therefore in their location down below breathed very foul air. . .  A pernicious habit also existed of sluicing out all the decks every morning with salt water… The chilly dampness arising from this proved a fertile source of sickness. 

. . . As a reward for three months of good behaviour, a light ring (called a basil) above the ankle, scarcely to be felt, succeeded the irons. Upon losing the weightier decorations my foot in walking used to fly up in an odd manner for some time afterwards, till the muscles got used to their lighter load. . . I found the carrying of timber and other hard work very irksome at first, although labour is not a severe punishment to a strong man well fed; but we suffered from a lack of sufficient food… Hence the mortality was great, it being whispered that the head doctor at the hospital ship, enjoyed a contract for supplying surgeons in towns with bodies for dissection at six guineas a piece.


The Prison Hulk Register for the Leviathan tells us that John Hardy was single and that he could both read and write. It also confirms that he was a labourer. Under the heading, ‘Gaoler’s Report’, it just states, ‘Unknown’. This may mean ‘not known’ but it may also be that this was John Hardy’s first offence. When we look on the same page of the register we see the prisoners described as:


            As bad as can be

            Bad. In Prison before

            Character and Connections bad

            Before transported


If John was new to crime and prison this must have been a daunting experience, locked up with hardened criminals in a rotting hulk of a ship. J. H Capper, who was Superintendant of the convict hulks, when answering questions from members of the House of Lords on 17th March 1828, gave the official view of the strict daily routine on the hulks in Portsmouth harbour. A gun was fired at a quarter to six to summon hands, followed at six o’clock by the prisoners lashing up their hammocks and breakfast a quarter of an hour later. When the dock workers started work the convicts were sent ashore although some remained on board to clean the ship for inspection at half past nine. The convicts were:

. . . mustered out of the ship in gangs, and received on shore by the officers, quarter-masters and guards; the latter (under the inspection of the two former)  strictly searching their persons to prevent the concealment of anything tending to facilitate an escape, or contrary to the rules and orders of the ship.

So the day continued with the prisoners going back on board for dinner at half-past twelve (taken, it appears, in their cells]. They started work again at a quarter to twelve. Supper was at quarter past six and, in ‘divisions’, the men then went to evening prayers in the chapel. The last group attended prayers at quarter to eight and all the prisoners were locked up in their cells for the night. 

The work they did was:

. . . everything that is most laborious the Navy Board give them to do and at the Ordnance, the painting of ships in the harbour, removing ballast out of and into the ships, cleaning all the ships out, taking up the mooring chains, removing the timber, clearing the mud from the docks, etc.

To do this work each convict had a weekly allowance of 1lb 12 oz of barley, 1lb 5 oz of oatmeal, 8lb 12 oz of bread, 3lb 8oz of beef, 12 oz of cheese, 3½oz salt and 7 pints of small beer. There seems a good deal of beef and a complete lack of vegetable and fruit. In general, the food was probably served as stew or ‘slop’ and the beef would be the least desirable parts of the animal.

The prison hospital in Portsmouth dealt with the diseases that the conditions in the hulks worsened or caused. At times, the nineteenth century can seem very close to us but occasionally a statement, like the one given below in July 1831 by the chaplain, William Tate, in the half-yearly Parliamentary Report on Conduct of Convicts in Portsmouth Harbour, reminds us that it was a different age.

In the Hospital the mortality has been greater than usual; but in nearly all the individuals whose cases were considered dangerous, the marks of deep remorse and sincere penitence were very striking and consolatory.

The Register also records that John was pardoned in 7th May 1841. Most of the others have VDL (Van Diemen’s Land now Tasmania) in this column so it seems that he was never transported but stayed on the hulk for four years before being pardoned. How this might be so was answered by J.H. Capper in the House of Lords. When asked whether all those sentenced to seven years transportation were sent, Capper replied:

Those that have been on the hulks before, or have been in gaol more than once, are usually sent abroad; but those who are not known to have been convicted are generally detained for employ in the dock-yards, and remain in the hulks for certain periods, till the Secretary of State thinks fit to recommend them to the King for pardon. 

Mr Capper goes on to say, however, that many men sentenced to seven years transportation were sent abroad because they formed a high proportion of the total convicts on the hulks. The ‘Not Known’ on the Hulk Register was significant in keeping John Hardy in this country. The Superintendant also states that:           

No prisoner is discharged till he has served one moiety of his sentence; and it is very rare that this is prior to four years.

He reveals that the officers on the hulks recommended a certain number of the convicts quarterly, on the basis of exemplary conduct throughout, vouched by the chaplain and the officers. John Hardy had obviously kept out of trouble and worked well on the docks, for he seems to have served the minimum period possible. This policy of not transporting those sentenced for the shorter period may seem a humane one but actually the Governor of New South Wales had found the seven-year convicts less tractable and more troublesome than those sentenced to longer sentences. He stated that they believed that they would get home after some six years no matter how well they worked whereas those with longer sentences were hoping good behaviour would give them some mitigation of their sentence.

What happened to John Hardy next? He would have only been some forty-five years old although life on the hulk may have injured his health. Did he return home? He should be in the 1841 Census somewhere but so far I have been unable to trace him, in this or later Censuses. This may be due to our lack of knowledge of the origins of a stranger who, one day, passed through Ringstead while the men were away harvesting and decided to look for easier money than labouring provided.

In 1833, some four years before John Hardy’s fall from grace another man was caught stealing in Ringstead. This was a more complicated case and our man was almost certainly a more practised thief than John. His name, among others, was George Smith and there are two George Smiths born in Ringstead about the right time: one was the son of Thomas and Dinah who was baptised on 15th September 1800 and the other was George Peter Smith the son of William and Sarah born on 21st February 1802 and baptised a few months later. We cannot be sure that either is our man.

William Coleman, a farmer in Ringstead had a mare which he kept in a fenced yard close to his house. The gate was not locked and on the 7th (or 9th) of January 1833 he found that she had gone. He had bred the mare and knew that she had a distinctive mark on her leg which he recognized when he went to Guyhirn, in the Isle of Ely, to see a mare in the constable’s possession. He had once employed a certain George Smith to take this mare and three others to market in Higham Ferrars although Coleman insisted that Smith was not authorised to do anything but get them to the market. Two of the three were sold but the mare and another one were brought back. He had wanted twenty-five pounds for the mare and would not have accepted anything less than twenty-four.

Leonard Freeman, who lived at Leverington, gave evidence that on 9th January a William Foskett had come to him saying that he had a horse to sell. Freeman went to Guyhirn, where Smith and Foskett had the horse and bought the mare for fifteen pounds. The Northampton Mercury report of the trial is a little confused but it appears that, at this point, Robert Oldfield, the constable at Guyirn impounded the mare and took Smith into custody. At the trial, in the Isle of Ely Lent Assizes, Smith claimed that Coleman had told him to sell the horse as he ‘had not a shilling left’. Foskett, on the other hand, made no defence but called two witnesses to give him a ‘good character’.

It may be that Foskett’s policy was the right one for he was acquitted whereas George Smith was sentenced to transportation for. It is almost certain, however that the jury thought that George Smith was the prime mover in this theft and also that this was not his first offence. A George Smith was given three months imprisonment in 1831 in Northampton for, with eight others, feloniously breaking a threshing machine. This was part of the agricultural riots which started in 1830 and often known as the ‘Captain Swing Riots’ in protest against the new machines and farming methods that were impoverishing many farm labourers. We do not know if this is the same George Smith and he was not the leader of the machine-breakers because other accused men received 12 months in gaol.

The reason that it seems likely that he had indulged in criminal activities before is that at his trial he is said to have an alias, John Allen, and later we see that he was also known as John Hill. A law-abiding farm labourer would have been unlikely to have had two aliases. There is a story to be told here but for the present we can only infer his criminal past.

The court sentenced George to transportation for life. He was just thirty years old when, on 13th April 1833 he was received on the prison hulk, Justitia on the Thames at Woolwich. The Justitia had originally been built in Calcutta and named the Admiral Rainier. She was taken into the Royal Navy in 1804, re-named the HMS Hindostan and fought in the East Indies where she carried out escort duties. She became a store ship and then a troopship again and saw action at Charlestown before taking troops, in 1809, to restore order after the Rum Rebellion in New South Wales. In 1811 she again became a store ship and in 1819 was renamed Dolphin. In 1824 she was hulked as a prison ship at Woolwich and finally renamed Justitia. This list is a simplification of her many incarnations but this was not unusual at this time, with constant changes of name and function often happening, especially among the smaller ships. Wooden ships were much easier to fit and re-fit than their steel descendants.

Convicts being rowed out to a prison hulk, probably the Justitia c. 1835 

(after work by George Cook, Samuel Prout)

© National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, UK. All rights reserved.

Conditions on the Justitia for George Smith would have been similar to John Hardy on the Leviathan although George would have probably have been more severely treated. We know that the hulks were unhealthy places to be, as J. F. Mortlock told us in his Experiences of a Convict and we have further proof of this in the Surgeon’s Report of one of the Convict ships taking men to New South Wales in 1833. A. Ferguson, Surgeon on the convict ship Jupiter, kept a Medical and Surgical Journal from 24th December 1832 to 1st June 1833. His report includes the following:


There were 28 cases of herpes and 16 of itch among the convicts in February 1833. The diseases appeared to have been brought from the hulks, particularly the Justitia.

The convicts were in [tolerably] good health and [mostly] middle aged but weakened by diarrhoea. Cholera existed in both the hulks at Woolwich and was probably the source of the bowel complaints.

We know from the Hulk Register that George was transported with many of his fellow inmates on 10th June 1833. It is likely that the ship would have sailed round to Portsmouth to pick up further convicts from the hulks there and there may have been some delay before they finally embarked on the long journey to Australia.

On August 25th of that same year the convict ship Amphitrite ran aground at Boulogne. The female prisoners, who were battened down under the hatches broke away the half deck hatch and rushed on deck, pleading with the surgeon and captain to let them go ashore in the longboat. The captain, who had refused assistance, did not feel able to liberate prisoners entrusted to his care. The broadside of the disaster continues: 

About seven o’clock the flood tide began. The crew, seeing that there was no hopes, clung to the rigging. The poor 108 women and 12 children remained on deck, uttering the most piteous cries. The vessel was about three quarters of a mile from shore, and no more. Owen, one of the men saved, thinks that the women remained on deck in this state about an hour and a half.

All the women and children and many of the crew were drowned. But in all only five convict boats were wrecked, so it seems unlikely that George was lost in this way, and, unfortunately, this is where our story of George must end. Of course, there are many George Smiths who were transported during this period but none of them seem to fit the facts about our George, as we know them. Did he escape, or die, or are his records lost?

So we have two men convicted of stealing from people in Ringstead in the 1830s who were sentenced to transportation. John Hardy was pardoned but we have been unable to find him again and George Smith seems to have disappeared from the records.



Censuses 1841, 1851, 1861,1871

Ringstead BMD

Northampton Mercury 30th March 1833 & 21st October 1837

England & Wales Criminal Registers 1791-1892 (

UK Prison Hulk Registers and Letter Books 1802-1849 (

HMS Leviathan (1790) (

Experiences of a Convict. J.F. Mortlock.

House of Lords Sessional Papers 1801 – 1833 (

Half Yearly Report on conduct of Convicts in Portsmouth Harbour July 11th 1831. ( Parliamentary papers Volume 33: House of Commons ( )

Convict Ships to Tasmania 1812- 1853 (

Loss of the Amphitrite ( )

Medical and Surgical Journal of His Majesty’s convict ship [Jupiter] 24 December 1832 to [1] June 1833. (National Archives Catalogue ADM101/39/7)

Lists of the convict ships and their passengers at


SOLDIERS OF KING & QUEEN: William Pettitt; John Smith; John Percival; William Atkins 

These short biographies of soldiers born in Ringstead in the 18th and early 19th Century are far from complete and as always, I hope to improve them. Please do contact me at if you have any additions or amendments.  I have a couple more to add in the future (deepending on the weather).


William Pettitt (1756 - ?)

The Pettitt (sometimes Pettit) family has a long history in the Ringstead and Great Addington area.  A Lewis Pettitt, son of Eusebie, was buried in the Ringstead Parish churchyard on February 10th 1600. A century later, another Lewis Pettit, was baptised in Great Addington on 12th July 1706, the son of William and Jane. He married Elizabeth Sanderson on 11th May 1729 in Great Addington and a son William was christened on 8th December, 1734 in Ringstead. Like many others they had crossed the Nene to the larger village.

On April 20th 1752 William Pettit “of Ringstead” married Mary Yeomans at Rushton, some fourteen miles north-west of Ringstead.  They moved back to William’s home parish and had at least five children, two of whom died young. One of the surviving children was another William who had been baptised on 5th January 1757. We know from his military discharge that he had become a “cordwainer” (shoemaker) in Ringstead before his enlistment.

William joined the Second (Coldstream) Foot Guards in March or April 1776. Famously, the regiment was placed as the second senior regiment of Household Troops, as it entered the service of the Crown after the 1st Regiment of Foot Guards. It answered to that “insult” by adopting the motto Nulli Secundus (Second to None), alluding to the fact that the regiment was older than the senior regiment.

William served with them for twelve years three months, leaving on 27th July 1788. On his discharge paper it states that he was a soldier in Colonel Boscawen’s Company of the Regiment He was praised as having “served honestly and faithfully” and was “humbly recommended as a proper object of His Majesty’s Bounty of Chelsea Hospital”.

The real question is whether he was part of a section of the Coldstream Guards who joined a composite battalion of men made up from the three Guards regiments. This was commanded by Colonel Mathews of the Coldstreams, but it set sail from England in March 1776 so there is some doubt that he had enlisted in time to fight in the American War of Independence.  There is, however, another clue in the official records, for William Pettitt appears in The Royal Hospital Chelsea Disability Admission Books (WO116). He is shown as starting his pension on 14th August 1788 and beside his entry it has been written, “Not upon the English Establishment.”  Michael McGrady, from the National Archives has told me that this probably means that his payments were “not made from the home-based part of the War office, as distinct from the overseas branches of government”.

My assumption is that this implies that he was indeed in America for much of his service career and took part in this ill-fated campaign (although this ended in 1783 so must be some doubt).  Because there is uncertainty that William was in America I will only, for the moment, only deal with it briefly.

A unit of men and officers from all three existing Guards regiments was formed in 1776. This consisted of men from the First (Grenadier) Guards, 2nd (Coldstream) Guards and the 3rd (Scots) Guards. They were all dressed in a uniform of redcoats and white breeches but the three had different lace and other minor features. When they reached America, their uniform changed as they realised its unsuitability for the type of warfare with which they were now confronted and formed a light “skirmishing” company for the campaign.

By 1779 reinforcements were needed and The Ipswich Journal for 27th March of that year reported:

Saturday a draught was made in St. James’s-park from the Coldstream or 2nd regiment of foot guards, to be sent to complete the brigade of guards in America, the major part of which turned out volunteers.

There seems to have been a lack of officers in the Brigade and as a result they spent much of the rest of 1778 and 1779 garrisoned in New York and took part in skirmishes at Portsmouth (Virginia) and New Haven (Connecticut) in 1779 and Young’s House (New York) in 1780.

The first major battle that William would have seen was at Springfield in New Jersey in 1780. The British forces wanted to capture New Jersey but were met at the small village of Springfield by a smaller but determined American force. The British could not break through (although there seems some dispute about this) but burnt and looted the village and retreated across a boat bridge to Staten island. This battle really ended British ambition in the north and there were no further major engagements.

The brigade then sailed south to Portsmouth and then on to Charlestown joining up with the main British army in North Carolina in January 1781. On February 1st 1780 the Guards, with great gallantry, forced the crossing of the Catawba River while under heavy fire. The British commander, Cornwallis, was chasing the Americans and trying to bring them to battle. The Americans stopped and formed three battle lines at Guilford Courthouse. The Coldstream Guards were on the left of the British line but the whole line charged as one. They were met with volleys of fire from the first American line who then ran into the woods and their second line then let off another devastating volley and retreated. The third line, of battle-hardened Virginians, then opened fire and the Guards took the worst of these fusillades. 550 British soldiers, including 11 of the 19 officers, were killed or wounded which was about one third of the army. The Americans retreated but the British were short of manpower and supplies and Cornwallis and the remnants of the army, including the Guards who were reduced to one battalion, gave up the south and went in search of provisions for his army.

Eventually the army arrived at Yorktown which was in British hands and started to construct a “defensible deep-sea port”. The French fleet defeated the British and blockaded the port. Cornwallis, who had hoped for reinforcements had to abandon the outer defences as lacking the troops to defend so long a fortification. These redoubts were swiftly taken over by the French and Americans and the British were bombarded into defeat. A white flag was taken out and the British troops suffered the ignominy of surrendering to Washington’s and the French forces.  They had to march to a field through the American and French soldiers lined up on either side and ceremoniously lay down their arms.  Some 7,000 British soldiers were then marched to York in Pennsylvania where they were kept captive until 1783 when, with the war’s end, they returned to England and their respective regiments.


Surrender of the British at the Siege of Yorktown showing French blockade (1781)

Unknown artist (Wikipedia Commons)

If we are correct in thinking that William Pettitt did go to America, he still had some five years left to serve. I have not managed yet to trace the movements of the Second Regiment of Foot Guards, but we do get a clear reminder that soldiers not at war get bored and sometimes fall into bad ways. The Oxford Journal of 10th September 1785 reported:

This Morning Captain H. of the second Regiment of Foot Guards, went into a Gunsmith’s Shop opposite Bedford Street, in the Strand and purchased a Pair of Pistols, one of which he immediately loaded with a Ball, turned round and shot himself through the Head, and dropped down dead in the Shop. – The Occasion of his committing this rash Action is said to be his losing last Night a capital sum of Money at a Gaming Table.

I also found that the same newspaper on the 19th March 1785 gave the important news that:

The Duke of York has ordered his Regiment, the Coldstream or second of Foot Guards, to have blue Coats, Waistcoats, and Breeches, with red Capes, Lappels [sic], and Cuffs, at the next Clothing.

In this comparatively quiet period before the explosion of the Anglo-French and Napoleonic Wars it seems that the British Army had fallen into a dangerous lethargy.

William Pettit, by the summer of 1788, had become unfit for service. The reason for his discharge was that he had developed asthma. The Admissions Book for Invalid Soldiers of the Royal Chelsea Hospital, (No. 1274) shows that he was examined on Thursday 7th August 1788. As a result, he became a Chelsea Hospital out-patient, receiving a small pension based on his 12 years 3 months of service. He was still only 32 years of age.

Although some Ancestry family trees link him to a marriage and family in Suffolk I have not managed to find any proof to identify him after he left the army although there are many possibilities.


Discharge Document for William Pettitt. National Archives Ref WO 121/5/5. On .

Royal Chelsea Hospital Admissions Book showing the Examination of Invalid Soldiers.  National Archives. (Ref WO 116-9).

Oxford Journal 19th March & 10th September 1785.

British Brigade of Guards. (

First Foot Guards. (

The battle of Springfield. (

The Siege of Yorktown. (


John Smith (1786 - ?) 34th (Cumberland) Regiment of Foot

The 34th Regiment of Foot, like many others, raised a Second Battalion, on 25th April 1804, to prepare for the French threat of invasion. We know from his discharge document that John Smith, born in Ringstead joined this battalion on 25th February 1808. He was about twenty-one years of age when he enlisted. When we look at the Ringstead Baptismal Register there is no exact match. The closest is the John Smith who was christened on March 18th 1792, the son of William and Elizabeth. It was not unusual for late christenings but if his parents were Particular Baptists he would not have been baptised as a child. He was later described as being of “swarthy complexion” and (being stereotypical) we know that that there were gypsies in the area at this time (a memorial to Tabitha Boswell, “an old Gypsie” who died 5th January 1784 is in the church tower) so this is a possibility. We may never be sure of the truth.

Once he had enlisted John would have been kitted out and drilled and marched around the countryside. In July 1809 a 1000 strong battalion embarked for Portugal as part of the Peninsular Campaign against Napoleon. It became part of the Rowland’s Second Division in a brigade led by Catlin Crawford. Their first engagement was at Bussaco where the British and allied army made a stand after retreating before the French. The ridge there was a strong defensive position and when the battle began at dawn on 27th September 1810 the 34th were on the right of the line and saw little of the action.


Sir William Beresford disarming a Polish officer at Battle of Albuhera (16th May 1811).

 W Heath. Beresford.jpg  (Wikipedia Commons)

Samuel Nicholls from Ringstead, now an experienced soldier, was with the 4th Battalion of the Royal Horse Artillery at Bussaco. Did their paths cross amid the chaos?

If John had been lulled into thinking that life in the army was as the recruiting sergeant had described it, the next engagement was to disabuse him. The Battle of Albuhera was one of the bloodiest, relative to the troops involved, in the history of the British Army. It took place on 16th May 1811 with the 34th in the Second Division, this time commanded by Stewart. It was a typically confused battle with the powder of the troops dampened by a hailstorm. This allowed the French Lancers to wreak terrible havoc on the foot soldiers, with one brigade almost wiped out. Then, with powder dry, the British, with their Spanish and Portuguese allies, exchanged fire with the French, only some twenty yards distant, for almost an hour. Eventually the French army retreated from the field but the British were not in a state to follow up their advantage. The 34th suffered terrible losses and any illusions that John Smith had about soldiery must have been shattered. Between them the armies lost nearly 14,000 lives that day.

In general, warfare was conducted from Spring to Autumn and, towards the end of the 1811 “season”, at the end of October, they met the French at Arroyo dos Molinos. There was torrential rain and the Second Division, including the 34th had to march in terrible conditions through the night of the 27th but as a result took the French by surprise and won the day with the loss of only 100 men. The 34th were matched against the 34e Regiment d’Infanterie de Ligne and they crowned this coincidence by capturing their opponent’s drums and drum major’s mace, still treasured trophies of the regiment.


Captured drums and mace

From: The Project Guttenberg EBook of Regimental Nicknames and Traditions of the British Army

The following year the 34th were at the Battle of Vittoria which was a decisive victory for the British with their Spanish and Portuguese allies. The 34th were not at the centre of the battle but it was at Vittoria that John Smith received a musket shot in the head and this probably finished his active career. In 1847 a medal was struck for all those who had fought between 1793 and 1814 although they could only be claimed by the living and not by their families. A Peninsular Roll was prepared and it lists two John Smiths for the 34th. There were also additional clasps awarded for particular battles and these are shown in the list by their initial letter.  We cannot be sure, but it appears that the John Smith who was entitled to A (Albuhera) and V (Vittoria) is our man (Arroyo dos Molinos did not merit a clasp). The 34th went on to further battles at Nivelle, Nive. Orthes and then Toulouse, by which time Napoleon had abdicated. I do not think that the badly injured John fought at these later battles. The Regiment embarked for Ireland in July 1814. Whether John managed to get back to Ireland early or if he followed the Regiment we cannot be sure. Certainly, we know that he was discharged because of his injury at Kilmainham on 30th November 1814. This would have been after the return of the Regiment.

The Second Battalion was disbanded in 1817. He had been a private for six years 279 days and was about 28 years of age. He was granted a pension and, to help prevent fraud, there was a description of his appearance. He was five feet seven inches tall with brown hair, grey eyes and swarthy complexion. Before enlisting he had been by trade a cordwainer (shoemaker).

His time after the army, like his time before enlistment, is also very uncertain. One would expect him to return to Ringstead and on 14th September 1815 a John Smith married Elizabeth Barber in Ringstead Church. Elizabeth was described as “Of This Parish” but was baptised at the Great Meeting House, a nonconformist chapel at Kettering, on 9th July 1798. I have not definitely found them again. Some Ancestry trees have the couple having a child, Martha Rachel Smith, born on 20th May 1820 in Thrapston. She went to London as a housemaid and married a John Stoyles on 10th May 1841 at St Giles in the Field in Middlesex and emigrated by assisted passage to Australia. Her father is given on the marriage certificate as John Smith but he was a gardener. Julianne Stoyles has notified me that, on her death certificate, Martha’s parents were given as John and Elizabeth and that she had been born in Thrapston. I have not yet managed to spin together the separate strands into one life.

It would be good to find that John did have a reasonable life after his time in the army. In 1824 the Vagrancy Act was passed to punish “incorrigible rogues”. It was directed particularly at soldiers who had returned from the French Wars and had become “idle and disorderly”. Up to one fifth of the army had been “recruited” from criminals but many ex-soldiers of all types found it difficult to reintegrate into society. They often could not find work in the post-war depression and carried with them the mental trauma of their experiences. Some fell into petty thieving and drunkenness and the disabled were often figures of fun or distaste.

Alice Parker has written that the Peninsular War, with its bitter, grinding sieges and the animosity of the Spanish (who were their allies), made worse the drunkenness, plundering, rape and murder that were associated with most military campaigns at the time. Suddenly, left alone in civilian life with an inadequate pension, and cut loose from the discipline and camaraderie of the regiment many men led short unhappy lives. Let us hope that John Smith was one of the fortunate ones.

Note: There is a John Smith, born in Castor (some 20 miles from Ringstead) in about 1786 and in the 1851 Census he is described as a Chelsea pensioner. Castor was a well-known meeting ground for the Gypsy community. Could he have been born in Castor but baptised, aged six, in Ringstead? It was not uncommon for people to give their baptismal parish as their place of birth. This is all conjecture.


My thanks to Julianne Stoyles for her help with the possible Australian connection. 

John Smith. Born Ringstead. Served in 34th Foot Regiment. (National Archives WO 119/27/64).

Above record downloaded from

34th (Cumberland) Regiment of Foot (

Peninsular Medal Roll 1793-1814 (

Peninsular War 1808-1814 ( In collaboration with Charles Griffin).

Battle of Vitoria order of battle (

Battle of Vittoria 21st June 1813 (

Ringstead Parish Registers ( and

“Incorrigible Rogues”. The Brutalisation of British Soldiers in the Peninsular War 1808 – 1814. Alice Parker. University of Liverpool. British Journal of Military History Vol.1 Issue 3 June 2015 ( )

John Percival (1799–1868)  4th (Royal Irish) Dragoon Guards

Of all the ordinary soldiers from Ringstead that we have looked at, John Percival was the one who reached as high in the British Army that a working-class man could achieve. We, again, have the problem of finding him in the Ringstead Parish Registers before his enlistment. The reason for this constant problem may be that the soldiers tended to come from a gypsy or travelling background, a significant number of the poorer villagers did not christen their children, or they tended to come from the Baptist community.

If we look for the name Percival in the Registers we find many with this surname but, perhaps significantly, only ten of the 48 entries (up to 1837) are after 1770. None of these are christenings, four are burials but six are marriages. In this period only, the parish church could conduct marriages so local nonconformists had to marry there. Later, a Ringstead vicar refused to marry a Baptist groom and so the local chapel was licensed for marriages too. Further, if we look in the “Brief History of the Ringstead Baptist Church” there is a list of the allocation of pews carried out in 1763. It includes a Sarah Percival of Ringstead who had four places. Perhaps this explains the lack of birth evidence for John.

It was at Nottingham, that, on 6th May 1819, John Percival took the King’s shilling and enlisted in the 4th (Royal Irish) Dragoon Guards for the bounty of two pounds. The Dragoons had left Ireland for Bristol in July 1818 but from the Autumn the headquarters were based in Nottingham with detached troops in Northampton and Leicester. It seems likely that he attested in Northampton and went with the troop to Nottingham. He initially enlisted for ten years only, although there were a number of caveats, and ways of extending this time, by the crown. He was twenty years old and a labourer.

Through a history of the regiment published in 1837 and the local newspaper reports we can try to trace John’s movements but it is important to realise that a regiment was often split into smaller troops or groupings, so we can rarely be certain that he was actually at a particular incident.

In June and July 1819 the regiment marched to York and were stationed there as well as at Sheffield, Leeds and Huddersfield. In the middle of August five troops suppressed riots in Leeds and again in September one troop marched to Durham to quell further disturbances. While stationed at York the death of George III was announced and the accession of George IV proclaimed. The regiment was part of the procession into the castle. The Yorkshire Gazette reported that:

When the Writ was finished reading, the union Flag was hoisted on the Castel Walls. The band of the 4th Dragoon Guards struck up, “God save the King”, three cheers were given, and the Minster Bells rung a merry peal....

Each of the prisoners in the Gaol as well as debtors as felons, 240 in number, had an allowance of ale from the High Sheriff to drink his Majesty’s health; and each felon had a loaf of bread.

A similar ceremony, again attended by the 4th Dragoons, happened on the next day, at Leeds. But this ceremonial could not mask the fact that there was anger and civil unrest in Yorkshire. On 11th April 1820 a large force of protesters was planned to assemble from Barnsley, Bradford, Keighley, Halifax, Dewsbury and Mirfield. The march from some areas stalled but the Barnsley contingent, armed with muskets and pikes pressed on. When, however, they realised that the other expected groups had not arrived, and were confronted by the 4th Dragoons and the Huddersfield Yeomanry, the protestors threw away their arms and fled. Seventeen of the marchers were arrested. Other troops of the 4th Dragoons arrived but were not needed. Nevertheless, they were in action again in Sheffield and one sergeant, one private and two horses were wounded with pikes.

John was to spend his military career keeping law and order as well as providing ceremonial security to state occasions.

From Historical records of the British Army; The Fourth or Royal Irish Regiment of Dragoon Guards

In August 1820 the regiment was stationed at Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Carlisle, Penrith and Whitehaven and, in the following March, it marched to Scotland where it was stationed at Piershill Barracks in Edinburgh but also a Greenock, Irvine and Ayr. Before this time, the eight troops of the 4th Dragoons were classed according to the colours of their horses;; two black; two brown; two bay; one bright bay and one chestnut. In August 1821 the regiment was reduced to six troops and the colours of the horses were mixed in each troop. There were then 27 officers, 24 sergeants, 18 corporals, 6 trumpeters, 6 farriers, 281 privates and 253 troop horses.

In July 1822 the regiment marched to Port Patrick and embarked for Ireland. The headquarters were established at Dundalk but the troops continued to move around the country until proceeding to Dublin in March 1826. It had one of its regular inspections there before sailing to Liverpool, arriving there on 29th March. On the 31st it set off again for Coventry, Birmingham and Abergavenny.  The trouble in the country over the New Poor Law was still rumbling around and the Dragoons had to deal with protests in Dudley and Wolverhampton where some of the protesters were wounded.

In April 1827 the regiment marched to Dorchester and were also posted in some of the nearby towns. In May 1827 its quarters were moved to Exeter and Topsham Barracks but Sergeant John Percival had met his future wife by then. John had been promoted to Corporal on 13th October 1822 and, some five years later, on 31st August 1827, was made up to Sergeant. Later in that same year, on 9th, 16th and 23rd December the banns were read for the marriage of John and Mary Mitchell at St George’s Church in Fordington in Dorset. Fordington was a village near, and now part of, Dorchester. A fellow sergeant in the 4th Dragoons was one of the witnesses. We learn later that Mary had been born in Manchester so whether they met there and she followed him to Dorset. In the 1861 census we find a Christiana Mitchell who is a niece of the couple. In the 1851 Census we find Christiana in Brecon Barracks with her mother, Elizabeth who is the “wife of a farrier”. A detachment of the 4th Dragoons were in the barracks at the time. Perhaps the most likely explanation of their meeting is that Mary’s father was in the 4th Dragoons, but more research is needed.

From Historical records of the British Army; The Fourth or Royal Irish Regiment of Dragoon Guards

The job of the army at home in peacetime was to keep law and order, at a time when there was no national police force, in a, sometimes volatile, country. The constant movement and drilling was also a way of keeping soldiers of all ranks occupied. Bored soldiers kept in one place could become fractious and, coupled with drink, could cause trouble. The Exeter and Plymouth Gazette of Saturday 12th July 1828 reported: 

On Monday morning, a duel took place between two of the Officers of the 4th Dragoon Guards quartered in Exeter. The meeting was at 6 o’clock in the morning, in a field behind the late Artillery Barracks. After an exchange of shots, without either taking effect, the seconds interfered, when a most perfect reconciliation took place, and the parties quitted the ground; the differences of opinion arose in one of the Officer’s rooms.

John’s new wife, Mary, had a daughter who was baptised Elizabeth on 2nd November 1828 in St David’s Church in Exeter

In April 1829 the regiment marched to York and then, the following March onto Edinburgh. The Woolmer’s Exeter and Plymouth Gazette for Saturday April 18th 1829 printed a “Lament for the 4th Dragoons on their Leaving Exeter”.

                                “O Weep for the hour”,

                                When in an April shower,

                The Royal 4th Dragoons left fair Exeter’s walls;

                                The ladies sobb’d outright,

                                One long day and one long night,

                To think those gay gallants must march where honor calls.


                                Full many a lovely dame

                                To the Ball for their sakes came,

                Who never in their lives had been at Balls before,

                                And Matrimony still,

                                Their pretty heads would fill,

                Alas! That all these brilliant dreams should now be o’er.


                                Yet ah! Would you believe

                                These warriors do not grieve,

                And that all the admiration’s on the ladies side?

                                They boast that they can flirt,

                                And escape without a hurt,

                Nor do they bear from Exeter one lovely bride!*


                                But grieve not ladies dear,

                                Your drooping spirits cheer,

                And from those sparkling eyes wipe the falling tear;

                                O throw aside your grief,

                                And in change obtain relief,

                For the dashing Third Dragoons will soon be here.

*i.e. more than one

Was Mary Percival one of the “lovely brides”? She, and her baby daughter would have followed her husband on his travels with the regiment. There was continuing work for the troops with unrest seething around the country. In April and May 1831 there were riots during new parliamentary elections. The Regimental History records:

Escorts were required for the voters, and so violent were the rioters, that one man was killed by a brick while proceeding to vote in charge of a party of the military. Many of the soldiers were knocked off their horses with stones and others had their helmets broken; yet such was the exemplary patience and forbearance of the soldiers of the FOURTH DRAGOON GUARDS under these trying and painful circumstances, that not a single civilian was hurt by them during the whole period. During the riots at Ayr the prisoners in the gaol rose against the turnkeys whom they overpowered; but a few men of the FOURTH DRAGOON GUARDS arriving, they dismounted, entered the gaol with loaded carbines, secured the prisoners before they could effect their escape and restored order.

Again, the following year, in March 1832 there were riots in Paisley which the regiment had to pacify before it embarked at Glasgow in steam vessels for Belfast. It seems that the army had turned to steamships for the rapid movement of troops, perhaps so that adverse wind conditions did not leave them in limbo.

But this was not an escape from trouble, for Ireland too was in turmoil.  In the autumn of 1832 the Dragoons had to split into smaller units to deal with election, and tithe collecting riots as well as other disturbances across Ireland so that they were constantly on the move. They were based at Cahir for a time before, on 28th April 1834, marching to Cork to deal with the violent resistance to the collection of tithes. They were met with sticks and stones and this time they did fire on the protesters, leaving some ten of them dead at Gortroe, a village north of Cork.

This was the last real battle in the “Tithe War” and is sometimes referred to as the Gortroe or Rathcormac massacre. And we know that two companies (100) dragoons were involved as well as the 29th Regiment of Foot. There were about 250 locals opposing the collection of the tithes (payment to the vicar of the Anglican Church of Ireland parish). They retreated to a prepared barricade on the land of Widow Ryan who was 40 shillings in arrears with her tithe. The troops were pelted with stone and sticks and sustained injuries for 45 minutes before the order to fire was given. The number who died is a matter of dispute but there were up to 20 dead it has been claimed. After this Widow Ryan paid her tithe and the crowd dispersed.

There were elections again in January 1835 and, once more, there were the inevitable riots which were “policed” by the 4th Dragoons.

The regiment completed three years’ service in Ireland and in May 1835 sailed from Cork on steamships for Bristol and then on to Brighton. The same story of civil unrest continued, mainly centred around the New Poor Law, and in September a troop of the regiment had to rescue magistrates and the relieving officer from a mob at Steyning and it was involved in similar incidents at Horsham and Bath. The opposition to the Poor Laws did not abate.

In February 1837 we can be certain, perhaps for the only time definitively, that John Percival was at Exeter with the Royal Irish Dragoons. A barracks could be a claustrophobic environment, as we have seen with the duel in 1828, and small matters could quickly escalate, especially if fuelled by alcohol.

A Private Pitt of the 4th Dragoon Guards had absented himself without leave from the Exeter barracks. When he returned it was decided that he and his room should be searched to make sure, it seems, that he had not sold any of his kit. Sergeant Henry carried out the search and returned to his own room which was opposite Pitt’s. He was joined there by Sergeant John Percival. The two of them heard the click of a pistol, held by Pitt, which had misfired. He then seized his loaded carbine and, as the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette reported on 18th February 1837: 

. . . fired in the direction of Sergeant Henry’s room, the ball passing across the back of Sergeant Henry but without doing him any mischief and closely over the breast of Sergeant Percival who had reclined on a bed, its progress stopped by the brick wall of the building.

Pitt was tried at a General Court Martial and sentenced to be transported for fourteen years. It is a story where you feel that much of the reason for the flashpoint is not reported.

On 29th May 1837 the regiment marched north to a new station in Hulme barracks and took part in the grand procession and spectacle in Manchester in honour of William IV’s birthday. Less than a month later, the king was dead and on 23rd June they were at the proclamation of the accession of the young Queen Victoria.

Some things did not change, and new elections caused troubles in some of the towns around Manchester and later, in October 1837 they had to deal with protests in Halifax and Bradford. By July of the following year they had to perform formal duties in London before marching to Ipswich and Norwich. There were riots here too against the Poor Laws and at Stanfield Hall the 4th Dragoons arrested some 84 protesters.

The History of the Regiment which was published in 1837 finished with a eulogy to the patience and professionalism of the regiment in the face of provocation and personal danger. It is, of course, a biased commendation but it does seem that John Percival was a part of a well-organised regiment asked to do the unpleasant task of subduing its own countrymen.  In June 1838, by contrast, the regiment was quartered in Isllington and Clerkenwell and, on 28th June, was stationed near Westminster Abbey for the coronation of the young Queen Victoria.

John must have distinguished himself, both in the ceremony and pomp, and in the difficult task of dealing with civil unrest in as disciplined way as possible. On 9th January 1840 he was promoted to Troop Sergeant Major. Without the Regimental History, we now have to rely on the local newspapers almost entirely for the movements of the 4th Dragoons. We do know, however, from the British Worldwide Index that in 1841 he was in Edinburgh. Later that year he regiment were sent to deal with the Rebecca Riots again in Wales.

Originally appeared in Illustrated London News in 1843

These riots took place in rural west Wales, between 1839 and 1843, where, small tenant farmers were protesting about the payment of tolls charged by the Turnpike Trusts or groups of businessmen who owned most of the main roads. Small farmers feared that the cost of journeys to and from market could take away all their profits. The protesters took a text from the Bible where Rebecca tells of the need to “possess the gates of those who hate them.” They called themselves “Rebecca and her daughters” and, dressed in women’s clothes, they tore down the toll gates. The protest was also exacerbated by poverty caused by poor harvests, the tithes they had to pay to the Anglican vicars, and the 1834 Poor Law Act which stopped the payment of poor relief to the able-bodied.  Instead they were forced to go into the new Union Workhouses. Finally, the gentry, the J.P.s, and the clergy were Church of England and spoke English, while the working people were Welsh-speaking chapel goers.

The regiment went to Carmarthen but were then sent to Newcastle Emlyn where they were confronted by up to 20,000 protesters, many of then carrying rudimentary arms. The Illustrated London News of 1st July 1843 reported:

The mob were so well armed and ready for action, that the dragoons could not enter the town until Monday morning, and the conflict that took place on Newcastle bridge is beyond description. The soldiers were thrown of their horses, their arms taken from them, and were afterwards thrown into the river Tivey, when one of the men, named Kearns, the roughrider, met a watery grave, and the others are so bruised from having fallen on the rocks below the bridge pool, that they are no more fit for service. The union workhouse has been entirely destroyed by fire and it is feared that a great many gentlemen’s houses will be destroyed in the course of the night.

Other troops poured into the area and the 4th Dragoons, with other regiments, eventually order was restored and not all reports were condemnatory of the rioters. A reporter in the Evening Mail on 26th July 1843 wrote:

On my reaching this place [Newcastle Emlyn] I made the best enquiries that I could as to the alleged general grievances, and as to the working of the New Poor Law, and I found without exception that the opinion of the whole country is that the law is most arbitrary, partial and cruel in its operation. A respectable farmer told me that one of the cruel provisions was that which prohibited the guardians from giving out-door relief to the able bodied. “The state of agriculture,” said he, “here is not like in England, the farms are small; and the farmers as well as the labourers are very poor. When the harvest is in the course of being gathered in we do not, as they do in England, have an influx of Irish and other labourers, who at the end of the harvest leave, and are no longer burdensome; but our own people only are employed as agricultural labourers, and they reside in the parish. During the summer they receive 1s. or 9d. per day, but in the winter they are perhaps not employed for many weeks, and when employed have only 6d. a-day. These people have a small cottage each to reside in, and a little garden, and many of them arrive actually at almost starvation point with their wives and children, rather than apply for poor relief, knowing that if they do so they will be dragged into the union-house, where they will be placed, themselves in one yard, their wives in another, their male children in another and their daughters in a fourth; and thus completely separated, they cannot see one another, except through the kindness of the governor of the union-house, who perhaps would get reprimanded for allowing the indulgence, and in the meanwhile their little furniture, their cottage and their garden fall into hopeless ruin.

Throughout the summer the “Rebeccaites” were meeting and dispersing before the Dragoons but 1843 saw the end of their activities. Some old soldiers would later end up in the workhouse or begging for a living and many of the regiment must have found that the work they were asked to do was not what they had signed up for. John Percival himself had been a labourer in a poor family although in a community not reduced to the dire straits found in many Welsh and Irish communities where the poor regularly faced starvation. We do know that a number of officers were criticised for not dealing more harshly with the food rioters. In the Limerick Food Riots in 1830 Captain Drought was accused of being on the side of the rioters and he replied:

                . . . as a Christian, he does not think it was his duty to fire on a multitude of starving people.

After the 1831 Bristol Food Riots, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Brereton of the 14th Light Dragoons was tried for negligence after he refused to fire on the protesters.

We cannot know what John’s feelings were about having to subdue the poor and the starving but we do know that all the drilling and riding had begun to take its toll on his body. The regiment returned to Ireland in the autumn of 1843 and John was assessed for discharge from the army at Longford, some 75 miles north-west of Dublin, on 22nd November 1843. He was found to be suffering from lumbago and varicose veins in both legs, both almost certainly due to his horse riding. He was granted his discharge and given a pension. He had been in the 4th Dragoons for 24 years and 236 days, all of it in “home service”.

Unlike some of the other soldiers of this period this was not the end of our knowledge of John Percival in the official records, mainly because he lived to feature in a number of British Censuses so that we can trace him with certainty.

In 1851 John Percival was 50 years old, a Chelsea Out Pensioner, born in Ringstead. Living with him at 2 St John Lane, Halifax home is his wife Mary (42) born in Manchester and daughter Elizabeth (22) who was born in Exeter. A year later Elizabeth married Seth Gray, a widower, and her father is shown as John Percival, “Late Sergeant Major in the 4th Dragoon Guards”. By the following Census in 1861 John (59) and now strangely born in Raunds, and Mary (52) are living at 3, St. John Lane in Halifax. With them is Christiana, a niece, who may be a child of Mary’s brother. This terraced stone-built cottage is still there today (2018) although much around it has gone.

I believe that John died, aged 70, in early 1868 and in the 1871 Census Mary, aged 62, is living with her daughter Elizabeth and husband Seth Gray at 42, Craven Terrace in Leeds.

As always, there are many gaps in our knowledge of John Percival but in following him round the British Isles we do get a glimpse into a far more volatile and divided rural community than we sometimes imagine for this time. Did John ever return to Ringstead to tell of his life and the life he had seen policing the four countries of the union. It seems unlikely. Nor do we know how he coped after retirement after being a man of importance in the regiment.


Ringstead Parish Registers.( and

Fordington St George and Exeter St. David Registers ( and ).

Censuses (

National  Archives WO/107/60, WO23 & Wo97. (John Percival’s Army and Chelsea Pensioner Records).

Historical Records of the British Army : The Fourth or Royal Irish Regiment of Dragoon Guards 1837 (

Yorkshire Gazette 5th Feb 1820; Public Ledger & Daily Advertiser 11th Feb 1820; Leeds mercury 12th Feb 1820; Caledonian Mercury 24th April 1820; Dublin news 8th Nov 1824; Saunders’s News-Letter 7th June 1825; Morning Post 14th March 1827; Exeter & Plymouth Gazette 12th July 1828, 18th April 1829, 18th Feb 1837; Worcester Journal 23rd April 1829; Southern Reporter and Cork Commercial Courier 13th June 1833; Morning Advertiser 25th Sept 1833; Limerick Chronicle 1th Feb 1837; Illustrated London News 25th March 1843, 24th June 1843; 1st July 1843; Evening Mail 24th July 1843; Dublin Evening News 26th July 1843; Dublin Evening Packet and Correspondent 5th August 1843.

Rathcormac Massacre; 4th Royal Irish Dragoons. (

The 1830 Limerick Food Riots by Liam Hogan (


William Atkins (c1818 - 1852?)

William Atkins was another soldier whose life outside his army service seems to have eluded the parish and other records. There are some eighteen entries in the Ringstead registers for the name Atkins stretching back to a marriage in 1576. At the time of William’s birth there are a number of baptisms, all the children of Smart and Ann Atkins. There is no baptism for a William but it seems most likely that Smart and Ann were his parents.

Smart Atkins had been baptised at Buckworth in Huntingdonshire on 27th February 1792, the son of William and Mary. He had married Ann Turner on 5th September 1811 in Great Stukeley near Huntingdon. They had a daughter, Sophia baptised on 8th December 1811 in Alconbury Weston and then four other children baptised from 1816 at Ringstead. In 1838, we know from a property sale that Smart is still a tenant in Ringstead. But still no sign of William.

Looking at the military documents we know that a William Atkins, born in Ringstead in Northamptonshire, enlisted with the 29th Foot Regiment in Kings Lynn on 15th January 1839 and that he was 21 years old and had been a labourer. He was given the service number 1288.  He was 5ft 8½ inches (1.74m) tall with hazel eyes, dark brown hair and a fresh complexion.

After enlisting William went with the 29th Foot to the Plymouth Citadel. Soon after he arrived he contracted a severe case of small pox and this seems to have had a debilitating effect on his constitution. He was, after that, “very delicate” and subject to “coughs and other pulmonary signs”.

In May 1839 the 29th Foot were marched to South wales via Exeter. They were destined to the towns of Monmouth and Newport. The Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, on Saturday 11th May 1839, reported that they had been sent to Wales:

. . . in consequence of the daring conduct of the Chartists in the counties of Monmouth and Glamorgan who have enrolled themselves in military array and are publicly arming in large numbers, threatening open insurrection.

The arrival of the regiment may have quietened the disturbances, but unrest simmered, and the 29th had marched back to Bristol and then on to Weedon Barracks in west Northamptonshire before the real confrontation. By October 1839 they were in the barracks at Woolwich and probably remained there until August of the following year. Meanwhile, back in Newport, on November 4th 1839 10,000 Chartist sympathisers, including many miners, some of who had armed themselves with home-made pikes, bludgeons and firearms, marched on the town. It was reported that they had been drilled by a deserter from the 29th Regiment. Three columns of protestors converged on Newport. They had marched overnight but rain and the non-arrival of one group delayed them and they arrived in daylight, losing the element of surprise. The real battle happened outside the Westgate Hotel and the outgunned protestors lost some 20 dead and 50 wounded. The ringleaders were tried, found guilty of treason and sentenced to be hung drawn and quartered, the last time this barbaric punishment was ever meted out. After a furore of protest and petitions, some say from the young Queen Victoria herself, the sentence was transmuted to transportation. 

The Attack of the Chartists on the Westgate Hotel, Newport 4th November 1839

From Monmouthshire News. (Public domain)

As we have said, the 29th had marched to Woolwich and they were there for the celebrations of Queen Victoria’s wedding to Prince Albert on 10th February 1840. The West Kent Guardian, on the 15th February, enthused:

Her Majesty’s nuptials were celebrated, we are happy to say, by the inhabitants of Woolwich, in a manner worthy of the joyous occasion. From an early hour in the morning the streets were crowded by holiday-folk, all anxious to witness the busy preparations. The whole of the public departments were closed during the day and the vessels in the river, their rigging gaily decorated with the flags of all nations, aided by their appearance, the aspect of almost universal rejoicing. Many pleasing and elegant devices were displayed in the windows of the principal residents; but as there were exceptions to the general feeling, it would be invidious on our part to enter into details. The front of the Commodore’s house in the Dock-yard was handsomely decorated with the words, “God save the Queen” in variegated lamps presenting a beautiful appearance. The Royal Artillery Barracks was not illuminated but this was more than atoned for by a splendid display of fireworks in the barrack-field. Nearly 700 rockets with a proportionate number of other the pyrotechnic art were expended upon the occasion. The west wing which is occupied by the 29th Regiment was, however, well lighted up.

In August of 1840 the 29th took up their post in Leith (Edinburgh), some by the steamship Vesuvius (aptly but perhaps worryingly named). The Regiment remained there until the following June when they moved on to Belfast and on to Dublin.

HMS Vesuvius (a paddle sloop steamship) on the left in a storm in the Bay of Acre (1840)

Schranz Brothers (engravers). Wikipedia Commons

We cannot be sure how much of this action William Atkins took part in for, on 23rd October 1841, at Kilmainham Hospital in Dublin he was discharged from the army. He had served two years and 320 days. It is the record of his examination there that reveals the ongoing battle that William had had with ill health. He was adjudged to have a “disease originating in constitutional causes”, (i.e. not caused by his treatment in the army), that made him unfit for service. He had a chronic swelling on the anterior side of his chest and was subject to frequent attacks of “catarrh” and there were also “symptoms of incipient consumption”.

All this, (and including his bout of smallpox), had meant that he had been unfit for service ten times during the last two years, for periods ranging from one to four months. He was now “unable to march or wear his belt across his chest or perform any active military duty”.

As a result of all this ill health, he had often been in hospital and received the painful, but ineffective treatments of the day including the use of “blisters” and expectorant squills. A blister was usually made by applying a caustic powder and the theory was that the body could not contain two ailments at once. Squill, made from the bulb of a plant, is still sometimes used today for loosening phlegm in the treatment of asthma and coughs.

From the diagnosis of tuberculosis, it would seem unlikely that William had much time left to live, He had said that he had intended to live in Ringstead after his discharge. He had been of good character and was granted a pension of sixpence a week for six months. 

At first, I could find no proven record of him after his discharge but following a lead on an old RootsChat thread I looked at some Ancestry trees and there is a possible sighting of William although the age does not match and most of it is  from secondary sources.

A William Atkins, son of Smart Atkins, married Elizabeth Hales (sometimes Hailes) in Leighton Bromswold in Huntingdonshire (old county) on 13th February 1843. In 1846 the couple and Elizabeth’s widowed father, Thomas Hales, emigrated to South Australia. William Atkins died in Adelaide Hospital on 23rd June 1852 aged 39 years and, four months later, Elizabeth married Richard Fox on 13th October 1852 at O’Halloran Hill in South Australia. She died, aged 87, on 23rd February 1897 at Carey Gully, South Australia, some 54 years after her marriage to William.


William Atkins 29th Foot Regiment 1839 – 1841 (National Archives WO97/477/23): Also List of the Invalids admitted to the Pension List 15th December 1841 (N.A. WO23). .

Northampton Mercury 9th June 1838:Exeter and Plymouth Gazette 11th May 1839; Monmouthshire Merlin 25th May 1839 & 13th July 1839; Reading Mercury 12th October 1839; West Kent Guardian 15th February 1840; London Evening Standard 28th August 1840; Warder and Dublin Weekly 26 June 1841; The Atlas 28th August 1841: Freeman’s Journal 3rd September 1841. .

Ringstead Parish Registers; Censuses.;

29th (Worcestershire) Regiment; Newport Rising. .

Family Trees.

“Tigerlily” and “Bedfordshire boy” 2009.