Jem Hallewell, a Waterloo drummer of the 33rd Foot

A reading room (!) at Chetham’s Library in Manchester, the oldest free public reference library in the English-speaking world. Weatherley’s manuscript recollections are visible on the book rest. (Author’s photograph)

In the summer of 2019, I visited Chetham’s Library in Manchester and consulted the manuscript memoirs of James Weatherley, a local bookseller. Among other useful references, I was delighted to encounter a grotesque story about a drummer and Waterloo veteran.

On his first visit to London in November 1821, Weatherley attended a public hanging of eight convicts at the Old Bailey. As he relates, ‘I stood there some time after the drop fell…Old Jack Ketch [the executioner] came on the scaffold bringing a man and woman with him. The woman pulled of[f] her shawl and stood close to one of the bodys. Jack Ketch took hold of one of the dead man’s hands and rubbed the woman’s neck with it up and down several times. She then put on her shawl and turning round to go, I saw both of their faces. I was quite surprised to see two of the Manchester market stall keepers, old neighbours of mine in the market. It was Jem Hallewell and his wife. They had a stall opposite the Exchange. Mary his wife had a large wen [boil or other swelling on the skin] on her neck and they had been advised to go to London to have her neck rubbed with a man’s hand that had been hung, it was to take it away by a charm. They were both very superstitious but they might as well have rubbed it with a duck’s foot in Manchester. Jem told me they had given Jack Ketch 10/- [10 shillings] for the job. Jem had been a drummer in the 33rd Foot and was at Waterloo…Jem had lost one hand and three fingers of the other. He was druming [sic] when a shot took his hands. He said that he kept druming [sic] a minute or two after his hands and drum sticks were gone, he was not aware of his loss for a short time there was such a noise and the shock so sudden.’

Recourse to digitized military discharge records on FindMyPast reveals that James Hallowell or Hallewell, a Lancashire native and a weaver by trade, had served in the 33rd Foot from October 1810 to February 1816. He spent 2 years and 227 days as drummer, ranking as a private for the remainder. The records broadly corroborate Weatherley’s account of his battlefield injuries: Hallewell was discharged aged nineteen or twenty due to the ‘loss of left hand, & thumb of right hand, occasioned by a gun shot wound received at Waterloo’ on 18 June 1815. Described as ‘a very bad case’ on account of his injuries, Hallewell was awarded a large pension of two shillings and six pence a day.

The behaviour of Hallewell and his wife on the scaffold may seem more in keeping with ancient or medieval superstition but in fact reflected a folk medical practice that remained popular in the Georgian era. As Owen Davies and Francesca Matteoni wrote in a 2015 article for the Social History of Medicine journal: ‘From the eighteenth century through to the abolition of public executions in England in 1868, the touch of a freshly hanged man’s hand was sought after to cure a variety of swellings, wens in particular.’

Jem Hallewell’s claim that he had been injured while drumming provides rare evidence of British drummers beating at Waterloo, although what he was playing, and in what circumstances, is not specified. While a surgeon of the Life Guards heard ‘the drums of different regiments beating along the line’ on the morning of 18 June before the battle commenced, drummers do not generally seem to have communicated commands under fire, in contrast to light infantry buglers and cavalry trumpeters. One officer present noted that British drummers no longer rolled during charges. Instead, they were tasked with assisting the wounded. Another infantryman wrote that neither drum nor fife ‘mock[ed] us with useless din’ during the battle, adding that gunfire, groans and cheering were the true ‘music of the field’.

Chetham’s Library, Manuscripts/1/371, ‘Recollections…by James Weatherley’, pp.34-35
UK National Archives, WO97/512/8, discharge of James Hallowell.
J. Anton, Retrospect of a Military Life (Edinburgh, 1841), p.211.
[H. Ross-Lewin], The Life of a Soldier: A Narrative of Twenty-Seven Years’ Service in various parts of the world (3 vols, London, 1834), vol. ii, p.198.
J. Vansittart (ed.), Surgeon James’s Journal (London, 1964), p.31.
O. Davies and F. Matteoni, ‘”A virtue beyond all medicine”: The Hanged Man’s Hand, Gallows Tradition and Healing in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-century England’, Social History of Medicine, 28/4 (November 2015), pp.686-705.

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