Matthew Tomlinson’s diary

Today’s been a busy day for me so far: it began with an interview on BBC Radio Four’s Today Progamme and has since then been packed with media correspondence and calls, interspersed with much-appreciated messages of support and congratulation from friends.

The reason for all the hubbub is my discovery of a passage from the 1810 diary of Yorkshire farmer Matthew Tomlinson, which I uncovered quite by chance in Wakefield Libraries. Reflecting on news reports of the execution of a naval surgeon for sodomy, Tomlinson suggested that homosexuality is innate and should not be punished by death. Despite their ultimately inconclusive nature, his comments indicate that recognizably modern attitudes towards human sexuality were circulating in British society more widely – and at an earlier date – than is commonly assumed. It seems especially fitting to share this find in February, the UK’s LGBT History Month.

On 14 January 1810, Tomlinson wrote: “it appears a paradox to me, how men, who are men, shou’d possess such a passion; and more particularly so, if it is their nature from childhood (as I am informed it is) – If they feel such an inclination, and propensity, at that certain time of life when youth genders [i.e. develops] into manhood; it must then be considered as natural otherwise, as a defect in nature”. Either way, “it seems cruel to punish that defect with death.” This inference sparked solemn religious introspection, as Tomlinson struggled to understand how a just Creator could countenance such severe penalties for a God-given trait: “It must seem strange indeed that God Almighty shou’d make a being, with such a nature; or such a defect in nature; and at the same time make a decree that if that being whome he had formed, shou’d at any time follow the dictates of that Nature with which he was formed he shou’d be punished with death.”

To find out about the discovery of the passage, its context and wider significance, consider reading the BBC News article on the find (“The 200-year-old diary that’s rewriting gay history”) or the University of Oxford’s press release. My own comments on Tomlinson’s diary can be found on the University’s Arts Blog – “How I made a remarkable discovery in LGBT history – by mistake!” See below for a full transcript of Tomlinson’s comments on homosexuality.

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Speaking with Claire Pickering (Wakefield Libraries) and Sean Coughlan (BBC News) last week in Wakefield.

Wakefield Local Studies, 920:TOM, Journals of Matthew Tomlinson of Doghouse Farm
pp.1049-1050 – 14 January 1810: “Was this week sencibly affected in reading the behavior, and execution of a Mr Dixon Taylor, surgeon on board the Jemaica [sic] Westindia-man for an unnatural crime: a man of great genious, and a ready turn of wit: it appears a paradox to me, how men, who are men, shou’d possess such a passion; and more particularly so, if it is their nature from childhood (as I am informed it is) – If they feel such an inclination, and propensity, at that certain time of life when youth genders [i.e. develops] into manhood; it must then be considered as natural otherwise, as a defect in nature – and if natural, or a defect in nature; it seems cruel to punish that defect with death. But if it first takes its rise in the human mind from a viciated, and corrupted inclination; and by cherishing and encouraging such a propensity or inclination it becomes habitual, then it is upon such premises worthy of capital a severe punishment: It must seem strange indeed that God Almighty shou’d make a being, with such a nature; or such a defect in nature; and at the same time make a decree that if that being whome he had formed, shou’d at any time follow the dictates of that Nature with which he was formed he shou’d be punished with death. Now we do not see any symptoms of such a propensity in the brute creation: male invariably seeks the female, and that is the only argument which causes me to think that it is first formed from a visiated [sic] principle. Now as life is very desirous to all animated beings, I think it would be no reproach to the legislative power, were they to mitigate the punishment which is executed upon rapes, and sodomy, from death to casteration [sic]: as I shou’d suppose that if a man was casterated [sic], he wou’d neither have power, or feel inclination to commit such a crime a second time, and he might perhaps become a useful member of society: but when he his [sic] punished with death, we are certain that he cannot do either any more hurt or good; whereas if he was only casterated [sic], it wou’d be equally put out of his power to commit the same evil, and there wou’d be a great possibility of him doing much good.”

Change for change’s sake: Sir John Moore on the 95th Rifles

I am currently on a train returning from Cambridge, having presented a paper on duelling, honour, and military law at an eighteenth-century graduate seminar yesterday afternoon. I stayed over with a friend last night and consulted a few Napoleonic-era collections this morning at the Cambridge University Library.

Besides a few welcome anecdotes of duelling officers and military musicians, I chanced on a set of December 1803 inspection reports written by Major-General John Moore, including one for the iconic 95th Rifles. I am not an expert on Moore’s Shorncliffe system or the early years of the 95th, but found the report intriguing as it casts this revered and supposedly revolutionary regiment in a rather unflattering light. Moore took a dim view of most of the officers, decrying their willingness to indulge in ill-considered innovations simply to differentiate themselves from the rest of the army. According to Moore, these ‘eternal changes’ resulted in inconsistent practices and unpolished manoeuvres.

“The five companies of the 95th (Rifle) Regt. are a very active, stout body of men, perhaps the best for service in the Brigade…there is a good military spirit in the corps, to do their duty & to distinguish themselves. A desire to form something quite different from the rest of the Army, without having sufficiently considered, or previously determined in what the difference was to consist, has prevented the Regt. from being formed upon any one system. The eternal changes which have been made, have occasioned inaccuracy in drill, & uncertainty in movement. Lt-Col Beckwith is not an intelligent officer, nor is he calculated to command a light corps, nor are the other field officers I have seen good exercising officers, or expert with their men in the field. Thus, good materials have not been made the most of – but still there are some good officers in the 95th. The non-commissioned officers and men are intelligent, and it is a corps which will be useful, & do its duty upon service.” [signed] Major-General John Moore

Source: Cambridge University Library, Sir John Moore Papers, MS Add.9340/1, Major-General J. Moore to General Sir D. Dundas, 30 December 1803, pp.39-40.

Bugler 95th c 1809 by the square peak.jpg

 

Happy New Year

This being New Year’s Eve, I figured I would share an apposite quotation from William Darter’s reminiscences of life in Reading, Berkshire during and after the Napoleonic Wars.

“[I]t was customary on New Year’s Eve for the ringers of St. Lawrence’s parish to ring in a few peals of changes and leave the bells up on their stays, and some short time before midnight to return. At the same time the Militia Band assembled at the upper part of London Street, and all was still, until the moment St. Lawrence’s clock began to strike twelve, when off went the merry peal of eight bells, and at the same moment three loud strokes of the big drum led off the Berkshire Band down London Street to the Market Place, and from thence through a portion of the town. Seventy-one years have elapsed  since I first experienced the magic effect of this music of the band and the merry peal of St. Lawrence’s bells breaking out in the stillness of midnight, suggesting that the old year had passed away, and welcoming the dawn of its successor.”

Source: W.S. Darter, Reminiscences of Reading: An Octogenarian (Reading, 1889), p.82. This particular excerpt is dated August 1885, suggesting that Darter first experienced the New Year’s celebrations described above in 1814.

I wish all my friends and colleagues the very best for 2020.

Eamonn

 

 

New article: Instrumental Afterlives

Mass mobilization during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, unparalleled in scale and duration, had a significant impact on British musical life. The drastic expansion of the regular army and proliferation of auxiliary corps prompted unprecedented investment in martial musical ensembles, expanding opportunities for ordinary men and boys to acquire instrumental skills while providing all levels of society with greater access to concerted entertainment. Military units of all shapes and sizes scrambled to source appropriate instruments and uniforms, engage competent teachers and identify promising players. Regular and militia regiments combed prisoner-of-war camps for interned black soldiers and sailors willing to take up Turkish percussion instruments while discharged drummers and trumpeters found their musical expertise in high demand among volunteer corps desperate for qualified instructors. Musical instrument makers quickly took advantage of the commercial opportunities created by the expansion of the military market, offering all-inclusive package deals to colonels eager to outfit budding ensembles with the requisite instruments and equipment.

All this effort and investment had a tangible musical impact, of course, training a generation of instrumentalists from plebeian backgrounds, but the Napoleonic-era ‘martial musical project’ also left a significant material legacy. Stray military musical instruments, some boasting dubious Waterloo provenances, can still be found in local and regimental museums, country houses, and parish churches across the UK.

Read the full article here.

Rob Griffith photo of Frampton instruments

Implacable to The End

The HMS Victory, preserved in dry dock at Portsmouth, is famous as the sole surviving warship of the Battle of Trafalgar, a critical British success during the Napoleonic Wars and probably the most storied naval engagement of all time. Yet few people remember the battle’s penultimate survivor, HMS Implacable, which remained afloat until the mid-twentieth century.

The Pathé newsreel “Implacable to The End” (featured above) documents the scuttling of Implacable on 2 December 1949 in the English Channel. The then-150-year-old warship had started life in the French Navy in 1797 as the 74-gun Duguay-Trouin and fought at Trafalgar on 21 October 1805. Two weeks later, she was captured by the British and renamed Implacable, serving in the Royal Navy for the remainder of the Napoleonic Wars. Withdrawn from active service in 1842, Implacable was retained as a training vessel. By the early twentieth century, the decaying third-rate ship of the line was recognized as an important relic of Britain’s maritime heritage. She benefited from several campaigns, backed by philanthropists and royalty, to fund essential maintenance and save her from being broken up. However, in the context of government austerity following the Second World War, the Admiralty balked at paying for a full-scale restoration, and, despite widespread public outcry, chose to dispose of the wooden warship through a ceremonial burial at sea.

Rigged with explosive charges and weighed down with pig-iron as ballast, Implacable was towed out into the Channel and dispatched with full military honours. As the newsreel’s narrator notes, the ship was scuttled while flying the British White Ensign and the French tricolour – a nod not only to her past service under both flags but also to the twentieth-century reconciliation and friendship of former enemies.

A model of a Napoleonic-era man-of-war appears on screen as the narrator provides a brief synopsis of the HMS Implacable’s storied naval service. This shot allows audiences to imagine the ship in its original splendour – a far cry from the dismasted hulk visible in the newsreel.

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The voiceover also makes copious use of naval terminology and metaphor to remind audiences of the ship’s history and Britain’s vaunted seafaring tradition more generally. For instance, the wooden man-of-war, filmed before being towed out to her doom, is noted as being within ‘striking distance’ of the fleet at anchor at Spithead, and ‘within range’ of her successor, the new HMS Implacable (1944). Such language, accompanied by shots of modern battleships, reflects a conscious effort to link the Royal Navy’s past and present.

As the narrator acknowledges, ‘no ceremonial exists’ for such a rare event as ‘the honourable scuttling of a ship’, so the Royal Navy had to improvise, according the vessel ‘honours in keeping with her tradition.’ Thus, before the charges were detonated, the escorting warships cut their engines, honour guards saluted and a bugler played the Last Post. As journalist Neal Ascherson reflected in 2005, the affair was an ‘exquisite episode in Britain’s long practice of inventing tradition and turning truly squalid occasions into pageantry.’[1] HMS Implacable’s solemn state funeral, and the resulting newsreel, celebrated Britain’s naval heritage while destroying one of its most significant artefacts.

According to the narrator, however, Implacable lived up to her name even after her hull had been breached. She sank very slowly, remaining ‘defiant in death’ and ‘refus[ing] to be beaten’, ‘fight[ing] to the last’.[2] This language evokes the stricken vessel’s reputation as a fighting ship. Her demise, audiences are told, constitutes one final battle honour to cap off a storied career. Amidst all the pomp and circumstance depicted in the newsreel, it is easy to forget that Implacable was sunk not by enemy action but by her own navy, a victim of something as prosaic as fiscal austerity.

Written by Eamonn O’Keeffe, Trafalgar Day 2019

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Stern of HMS Implacable, now on display at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich (Wikipedia, Creative Commons)

[1] N. Ascherson, Victory’s lost sister – the wreck of the Implacable, OpenDemocracy (21 October 2005). https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/implacable_2950jsp/

[2] In fact, the warship’s deck was detached by the explosion and embarrassingly failed to sink, washing up on the French coast several days later.

6-pounder field gun in the Danish War Museum

Today I returned from a lovely vacation to Scandinavia having enjoyed stunning scenery, outstanding museums and (predictably, knowing my interests) some impressive castles and fortifications.

During my travels, I encountered a British 6-pounder field gun at the excellent Danish War Museum in Copenhagen. While the fine detail of artillery design is not my forte, I thought I would share some photographs here for interested friends and followers. The cannon, numbered 1374, was cast by Henry and John King in 1810. It bears the royal cypher of King George III and that of John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham, who was Master General of the Ordnance from 1801 to 1806 and again from 1807 to 1810. The field gun was captured by the Danes from the King’s German Legion at the Battle of Sehested in Schleswig-Holstein on 10 December 1813.

All photos copyright Eamonn O’Keeffe, 2019.

Walmer, Deal and Dover

Last week I travelled to Canterbury for the excellent Music in Nineteenth-Century Britain conference. I listened to fascinating papers, met some lovely people and presented my own research on the manuscript tune books of Napoleonic-era fifers and bandsmen. I was also managed to fit in visits to county archives on the way to and from the conference – the Hertfordshire Archives on 2 July, exploring the voluminous records of the Hitchin Volunteers and Midland Hertford Local Militia, and the Kent History Centre on 6 July, looking at a variety of documents including letters home from the Peninsula, Lord Castlereagh’s correspondence and papers of Cinque Ports Volunteer officers.

After the conference I spent a day at Walmer and Deal Castles, two artillery forts built by Henry VIII to defend the Downs, a strategically important anchorage off the Kent coast. Walmer was of special interest as it later became the residence of the Lords Warden of the Cinque Ports, a post often held by senior political figures. William Pitt the Younger, the prime minister for much of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, spent a great deal of time at the castle as did Wellington, who died there in September 1852.

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Pitt the Younger’s view from the office at Walmer Castle…the Downs and the French coast. Hard to take your mind off the invasion threat here!

In the evening I visited the Western Heights at Dover, a complex of derelict Napoleonic and Victorian defences built to protect the harbour from cross-Channel invasion. Hiking around the Western Heights is not for the faint of heart – visitors are faced with steep inclines, poor signage and overgrown paths, and much of the site is inaccessible – but I found the rather masochistic experience very rewarding. The scale of these fortifications was immense and the views of the surrounding landscape simply breathtaking. Below I’ve posted some photographs of the Drop Redoubt and the ditch connecting it with the (unfortunately fenced-off) Citadel.

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I also managed to visit the famous Grand Shaft – a triple helix staircase sunk 140 feet into the chalky Dover cliffs to give soldiers living in the barracks atop the Western Heights speedy access to the harbour below. An impressive feat of military engineering, the Grand Shaft was constructed between 1806 and 1809.

Can you help but laugh? The Motley Drummers of the Liverpool Independent Volunteers

Faced with the prolonged threat of cross-Channel invasion during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, Britons bore arms on an unprecedented scale. The army and militia were drastically expanded, while part-time volunteer corps were organized nationwide, with gentlemen, shopkeepers, tradesmen and labourers raising money for uniforms and equipment and sacrificing their spare time to practise military drill. At the height of the invasion crisis in 1804, almost 400,000 Britons were enrolled as volunteers, participating in what John Cookson has termed “the greatest popular movement of the Hanoverian age.”[1]

The significance of volunteering has been the subject of spirited debate among contemporaries and modern-day historians alike. Some have characterized this mass movement as an expression of grassroots support for the war effort and indicative of a burgeoning sense of British national identity. But sceptics have argued many volunteers were merely ‘play-safe patriots’ who enrolled in part-time auxiliary corps for pay or to avoid being balloted for the full-time militia. Contemporaries also expressed divergent opinions about the merits of the volunteers as a fighting force. Critics ridiculed their perceived amateurism and indiscipline, questioning whether such ‘weekend warriors’ would be much use against Napoleon’s Grand Armée in the event of invasion. Others were more optimistic: Lord Cornwallis pronounced in December 1803 that “no man, whether civil or military, will persuade me that 300,000 men, trained as the volunteers at present are, do not add very materially to the confidence and to the actual security of the country.”[2] That same month, Lt.-Col. Isaac Brock, commanding the 49th Foot at Fort George in Upper Canada, recorded his satisfaction on learning of the Duke of Northumberland’s efforts to arm and train his tenants: “It is pleasing to hear of the exertions of men of such amazing influence as their energy must diffuse itself to all around. I now look upon England as placed beyond a possibility of danger.”[3]

But a series of pamphlets authored by Bryan Blundell in 1799 provides a more pessimistic portrayal of the volunteer movement. A former private in the 1st Battalion of Liverpool Independent Volunteers (LIV), Blundell had been drummed out for denigrating the corps in an anonymous letter to the Sun newspaper in September 1798. He had characterized the LIV as poorly equipped and badly led, calling for the dismissal of its incompetent and “republican” officers.[4] The latter epithet referred to the Whig politics of Captains Thomas Earle and Joseph Birch, for Blundell considered their conspicuous opposition to Pitt’s ministry and openness to peace with France as evidence of “avowedly republican” principles.[5] After being expelled from the corps as punishment for aspersing the patriotism of his commanders, Blundell published several pamphlets decrying his summary dismissal and chronicling the faults of his former unit, which had been rendered “completely ridiculous” (in his telling) by the squabbling, ineptitude and questionable loyalty of its officers. In Blundell’s second polemic, The Rise, Progress, and Proceedings, of a Corps of Volunteers, shewing how Thirty Republicans have endeavoured to make Five Hundred Loyal Gentlemen Truly Laughable… (1799), he ridiculed the mismatched equipment and inconsistent drill of the LIV’s seven companies, singling out the drummers for particular contempt. “There were about eight drummers and eight fifers belonging to the battalion, and, strange to tell, they were habited in seven different uniforms — “Risum teneatis, Amici!”” The italicized Latin phrase translates as: “Friends, can you help but laugh?”

Symptoms of Uniformity in the Drummers of an Independent Corps from B. Blundell, The Rise, Progress, and Proceedings, of a Corps of Volunteers (London, 1799), British Library 2.jpg
Image courtesy of Google Books and the British Library

Blundell’s Rise, Progress, and Proceedings was complemented by a striking caricature, “Symptoms of Uniformity in the Drummers of an Independent Corps!!” The clothing and equipment of the LIV’s motley crew of ‘sheepskin fiddlers’ vary markedly in both design and hue, as do the facial expressions, ages and even ethnicities of the drummers themselves. The print depicts an assortment of headgear, ranging from cocked hats to bearskin caps, while the shoes and legwear of several drummers are shown to be in tatters. Indeed, if the colouring can be trusted, two drummer are not wearing any trousers at all. Of course, the veracity of this humorous and grotesque depiction is unclear: as a disgruntled ex-volunteer, Blundell had every reason to exaggerate the discordancy of the drummers’ appearances for comic effect. Yet whatever the accuracy, the artist clearly paid some attention to detail: several of the drums appear to be emblazoned with the Royal Arms, but two sport a design incorporating sun rays, fasces crossed with a liberty cap, and a liver bird, a symbol of the city of Liverpool.

Blundell went to great lengths to publicize the perceived injustice of his dismissal from the LIV, complaining he had been “drummed out of a Corps of Volunteers for [his] Loyalty”. The tenacious pamphleteer raised his case at the Court of King’s Bench, corresponded with William Windham, the Secretary at War, and sent two copies of his tract to the Duke of York, the Commander-in-Chief of the Army. Blundell even managed to hand his pamphlet, with the “caricature annexed”, to George III while the King was “getting on horseback” at the gate of one of the central London parks in April 1799.[6]

For all his efforts, however, Blundell’s campaign for redress evidently came to nothing, and it has so far proved impossible to corroborate or debunk his criticisms of the LIV, which were unquestionably coloured by personal and political animus. Yet whatever the reliability of his invective, Blundell’s vendetta against the Liverpool Independent Volunteers has bequeathed posterity not only a further example of tension between domestic party-politics and ‘national defence patriotism’ during the French Wars, but also an arresting image, surely deserving of recognition as a superlative visual critique of the volunteer movement.


[1] A. Gee, The British Volunteer Movement, 1794-1814 (Oxford, 2003), p.2; J.E. Cookson, British Armed Nation, 1793-1815 (Oxford, 1997), p.66.
[2] R. Knight, Britain against Napoleon: The Organization of Victory, 1793-1815 (London, 2014), p.270.
[3] Library and Archives Canada, RG 8 ‘C’ Series, vol. 513, p.115, Lt. Colonel Isaac Brock to Major James Green, Military Secretary, 22 December 1803. The Duke of Northumberland organized his tenantry into the Percy Tenantry Volunteers, commanded by his son, Lord Percy.
[4] “Volunteering–New and Old”, Dublin University Magazine (July 1859), vol. 54, pp. 68-70.
[5] [B. Blundell], The Rise, Progress, and Proceedings, of a Corps of Volunteers, shewing how Thirty Republicans have endeavoured to make Five Hundred Loyal Gentlemen Truly Laughable… (London, 1799), p.5; B. Blundell, Four letters for the consideration of all loyal Britons; and particularly for the attention of all loyal volunteers, shewing how republicans act when in power, and what underhanded meanness they are guilty of (1799), p.4.
[6] [B. Blundell], Dancing Masteriana, or Biographic Sketches for an inquisitive public; being the true style of a dancing master…to which are added five letters…, (London, 1799), pp.19, 23, 25, 30.

“En tirailleur”: light infantry tactics and bugle calls in non-light infantry corps

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6th (1st Warwickshire) Foot, Light Company (St. Catharines Standard)

Over the past few years, I have repeatedly encountered evidence of non-light infantry formations in the Napoleonic-era British armed forces practising skirmishing manoeuvres. During the same period, the bugle, commonly associated with the light infantry, began to supersede the drum as the favoured instrument for issuing musical commands even in some line regiments. These developments demonstrate the army’s ability to innovate and adapt to the practical demands of warfare, as it had previously done in the Seven Years and American Revolutionary Wars.

I recently came across another example of the use of light infantry tactics outside the light infantry proper in an unexpected place – the Home Office papers chronicling post-war radical reform disturbances – and thought I would share it on this blog.

In the aftermath of the failed April 1820 Grange Moor rising in West Yorkshire, the 6th (1st Warwickshire) Regiment of Foot under Lieutenant-Colonel Archibald Campbell was dispatched to the area to overawe would-be rebels. In a letter written to his superior on 23 April, Campbell included the following aside:

‘On the moor, my people [6th Foot] are out frequently, either all together as a small Batt[alio]n, or two companies at a time practising light movements, having always accustomed my Batt[alio]n companies to act when necessary “en tiraileurs”.’[1]

The word ‘tirailleur’, of course, was a contemporary French appellation for light infantry skirmishers.

Archibald Campbell exchanged into 6th Foot in 1812, commanding the 1st Battalion during the Peninsular War and later in Canada during the closing months of the Anglo-American War of 1812.[2]  Despite the letter’s post-war date, his phrasing indicates that the regiment’s battalion companies – and not just its solitary light company – had been instructed in skirmishing tactics during their previous years of active service.

However, even if non-light infantrymen received some light infantry training, there was always the risk of miscommunication when employing unfamiliar bugle calls. At Maguaga in the Michigan Territory during the War of 1812, the 41st Foot Grenadiers managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by misinterpreting a bugle command at the climax of the engagement.

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A twentieth-century depiction of the Battle of Maguaga by J.C.H. Forster (Windsor Public Library) – note the 41st Foot bugler at right.

Thomas-René-Verchères Boucher de Boucherville (1784-1857) recalled the blunder in his journal: “At the appointed moment, with the two ranks face to face, Major [Adam] Muir ordered the bugler at his side to sound the bayonet charge. Just then the company of grenadiers of the 41st commanded by Captain Bullard [Bullock], which General Procter had sent to reinforce us, came up. We were not at all sorry to see them for things were getting decidedly hot for us… The grenadiers, who had been sent by the General to reinforce us, were stationed in the centre. The signal which Major Muir was to give for the charge had not been explained to them, and thinking it was an order to retreat, they turned to the rear without firing a single shot… Finally, we were obliged to draw back because of the unexpected and groundless retreat of the grenadiers and that, too, at the very moment of victory, for the enemy’s centre had broken…the grenadier company, in place of helping us, succeeded only in throwing our ranks into disorder and was the sole cause of our defeat. This is painful to say, yet it is the simple truth.”[3]


[1] UK National Archives, HO 40/12, f.320, Letter to Maj-Gen Sir John Byng from Lt-Colonel Archibald Campbell, dated Leeds, 23 April 1820.
[2] Further details of Campbell’s varied career can be found in his 1839 United Service Journal obituary.
[3] War on the Detroit: The Chronicles of Thomas Verchères de Boucherville and the Capitulation by an Ohio Volunteer, ed. M.M. Quaife (Chicago, 1940), pp. 96-98.

Post-nominal Pandemonium, Or, a Strange Surfeit of Overqualified Drum-Majors

Grave Musician and Lively Cobbler BM

In the 1804 London satirical print, ‘A grave physician & lively cobler’ (pictured above), a doctor humorously mistakes humble tradesman Felix Last for a Fellow of the Royal Society. Eyeing the post-nominals emblazoned above the cobbler’s booth – D.M. R.S.F. – the perplexed physician asked the bespectacled cobbler ‘what could bring a man of science like you to mend shoes[?]’ The doctor urged Last to put his education to ‘more profitable’ use by taking up a medical career, prompting the shoemaker to clarify that he knew nothing of ‘physic’; the initials actually signified his former service as a drum major in the Royal Scotch Fusiliers.[1]

Another version of this anecdote appeared in The Gentleman’s Magazine in July 1809. As a correspondent calling himself Cacafogo (Spanish for braggart or fire-sh*tter) complained: ‘so universal is the mania for self-dignification, that, some time ago, in one of my ambulatory excursions, passing through a village in Wales, I observed painted on a board in front of a raccomodeur’s [clothes-mender’s] stall…“Solomon Sheers, M.B.M.D.M.A.” I own my astonishment was roused, and my curiosity keenly excited, at seeing these indiciæ of academical honours, so inapplicable to [the] appearance of the bode and its inhabitant, and therefore easily sought a solution to the enigma; when the knight of the thimble courteously informed me that it denoted him to be a breeches-maker, and also drum-major to the Anglesea Militia.’[2]

According to the disapproving correspondent, the tailor-cum-drum-major’s generous helping of post-nominals was symptomatic of a wider scourge of social climbing, with vulgar parvenus putting on airs and eroding what he considered to be the natural order of society.

Of course, the satirical names employed in both the print and the magazine submission cast doubt on the anecdote’s veracity. ‘Cacafogo’ aside, ‘Solomon Sheers’ presumably alludes to the scissors essential to a tailor’s trade, while Felix Last’s surname surely references the wooden forms used by shoemakers.  But fact or fiction, the joke – simultaneously lampooning academic pretensions and ridiculing drum-major-cobblers for getting too big for their boots – enjoyed lasting appeal. A very similar story was recounted by Thomas Geering (1814-1889) in his 1884 reminiscences of nineteenth-century life in Hailsham, Sussex: ‘Here is another trade joke. A facetious cobbler, who had been a soldier, and settling down in one of our small towns in the neighbourhood, put on his board over his shop-door following his name, “F.R.S.” Soon after he was visited by a stranger, a gentleman, who, offering his hand, feelingly inquired how it happened that a Fellow of the Royal Society should be found in so humble a position; but the man readily explained that he knew nothing of the Royal Society nor its letters. He had only, he said, initialed his last profession as Fifer in the Royal Surrey [Militia], and as he hoped the letters would attract attention and bring him customers, he did not feel disposed to alter the sign.’[3]

Whatever the truth of these amusing stories, they certainly capture the considerable pride taken by Napoleonic-era veterans in their wartime service, be they seasoned Peninsular men or former weekend warriors of the local volunteers. Moreover, I know of one verifiable (if rather more melancholy) instance of a drum-major appending the initials of his rank to his signature. Drum-Major William Washer of the Canadian Fencibles attended the 1812 funeral of James Faulkner, the three-month-old son of a black regimental bandsman, and signed his name as a witness in the Sorel parish register as “Wm Washer DMCR” – Drum-Major, Canadian Regiment.

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Christ Church Anglican, Sorel (Lower Canada) parish registers, 3 December 1812

[1] Strictly speaking, no regiment of this title existed during the early nineteenth century. The Royal Scots Fusiliers were then known officially as the 21st (Royal North British Fusilier) Regiment of Foot, North British being a synonym for Scottish.

[2] The Gentleman’s Magazine (July 1809), p. 608. The anecdote was repeated in The Cambrian newspaper on 26 August 1809: “In the front of a tailor’s shop, in North Wales, is a board with this dignified inscription: – “SOLOMON HUGHES, B. M. M. D. M. A.” which the owner interprets, Breeches Maker and Drum Major to the Anglesea Militia.”

[3] T. Geering, Our Parish: A Medley, by one who has never lived out of it (Lewes, 1884), p. 87.