The Old Proud Canary: Drum-Major John Lyster

By Eamonn O’Keeffe

Drum-majors of the Napoleonic British Army came in many shapes, sizes and ages. Some were fresh-faced young men who had grown up beating the drum, like Joseph Johnston of the Canadian Fencibles or Thomas Kelly of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. But strutting about in style was not exclusively a young man’s game; many ageing drum-majors enjoyed rarefied standing as ‘senior statesmen’ in their regiments. Respected as fixed points in a changing age, they served for as long as their increasingly rickety bodies allowed. Drum-Major Thomas Doyle, for instance, a native of Limerick, was discharged from the Canadian Fencibles in 1809 due to rheumatism (chronic joint pain) almost four decades after his initial enlistment as a drummer in the 44th Foot.[1] Likewise, Manchester-born Drum-Major Thomas Simpson, asthmatic and rheumatic at forty-eight, was invalided in 1815 after nearly thirty-one years’ service in the 49th (Hertfordshire) Regiment.[2]

Yet the ne plus ultra of such senior drum-majors was surely John Lyster, who had carried his mace of office for forty-six years (thirty of them in the Staffordshire Militia) by the time of his death in 1811, aged 79. Almost certainly the oldest and longest-serving drum-major of the era, he is also among the best documented.

Although Lyster’s story has been forgotten, his portrait is much better known. A painting now held by the National Army Museum in London, entitled ‘The Staffordshire Militia on parade at Windsor Castle’, dated 1800-1805, depicts the regiment’s drum-major leading the band near King Henry VIII’s Gateway in Windsor Castle’s Lower Ward.[3] Although none of the figures depicted are identified by name, the drum-major is undoubtedly John Lyster himself.

The Staffordshire Militia on parade at Windsor Castle, 1804 (c)
The Staffordshire Militia on parade at Windsor Castle, c.1804 (UK National Army Museum)

Born in London circa 1732 and a shoemaker by trade,[4] Lyster boasted an apparently impressive military record, having fought, according to his obituaries, “with Wolfe, at Quebec” and in Germany during the Seven Years’ War as well as at Bunker Hill during the American Revolution.[5] But the registers of the Royal Hospital Chelsea note that Lyster actually served for twenty-five years in the 59th Foot, enlisting in 1755 when the regiment was first raised. The corps spent the Seven Years’ War not on active service but on garrison duty in Ireland, although the battalion was sent to Nova Scotia in 1763 and to Boston in 1772, where it indeed saw action three years later at Bunker Hill. The 59th returned to England in 1776 to reform after suffering severe casualties during the opening phases of the American Revolution but Lyster, by then the regiment’s drum-major, developed rheumatism and was discharged with a Chelsea pension in November 1780.

Unwilling to give up his mace of office, Lyster sought out less arduous military service in the Staffordshire Militia. Although this regiment was disembodied in 1783 with the advent of peace, reassembling only for occasional periods of training, it became a full-time corps once again at the outbreak of war against Revolutionary France ten years later. Impressed by the Staffordshire Militia’s “fine appearance and high character”, King George III invited the regiment to garrison Windsor Castle in 1797.[6] Notwithstanding its brief period of disembodiment from 1801-3, the corps served His Majesty at Windsor almost continuously until 1812.

Lyster in particular enjoyed the King’s good graces, but this is by no means surprising considering George III’s well-known soft spot for drum-majors. As George Thomas Landmann of the Royal Engineers recalled, the King “was notorious for invariably taking more notice of the drum-major’s salutes… than [those] of any other person.”[7] When for example the Drum-Major of the 1st Somerset Militia “flourished his dazzling silver, balloon-headed cane” and saluted His Majesty, the King doffed his hat in a most melodramatic fashion but greeted the regiment’s actual officers with merely “a slight and hasty touch of his hat”.[8]

Besides the painting in the National Army Museum, a lengthy pen-portrait of Lyster can be found in the lively memoirs of Serjeant Thomas Jackson, who served in the Staffordshire Militia before transferring into the Coldstream Guards.

As Jackson wrote of Lyster: ‘While speaking of majors minor, I wish to introduce yet one other – the major of drums; especially as there are yet living some of his children, who will read this and see their father; he was a curious character – a very old soldier, who had, when young, served in the line. Although more than sixty, he had the agility of a boy; his person rather tall, finely erect, and proportionate – the very pink of a soldier. His countenance [was] fine, fresh and fixed, and [he] had the eye of an eagle. He would never turn his head about, but his eye. Extremely droll and witty in leisure moments, prior to parade falling in, the serjeants would gather round him to hear his cramp sayings, till ready to drop with laughter – but not a muscle of his face would move; woe be to him who dared provoke him to a sarcastic cut; he would make him writhe, and heap the laughter of all upon him. The officers delighted to get him into the mess-room after dinner, when he would either bewilder them with his astounding legendary [sic], or stupify them with laughter. His dress, very conspicuous, was a long yellow coat, white bullion epaulettes, cocked hat, and red feather. When at a review in the little park, the regiment moving in slow march past the king, he, leading the band, would, in his salute, fix his eagle eye full on His Majesty’s face, and, with a most extraordinary dexterity in changing his fine ornamented staff from one hand to the other by a peculiar flourish, never failed to make the king laugh. He was facetiously called by the soldiers The Old Proud Canary. He died, and had a pompous funeral; the lodge of Free Masons in full costume as mourners, and followed by all the officers of the regiment to his last home. He was a Lichfield man, and his name was Lyster.’[9]

The venerable drum-major died aged 79 on 30 March 1811 after “an illness of two days” and was buried on 3 April. An obituary for Lyster was published in The Monthly Magazine, describing him as “the senior drum-major in the army”.[10] Another tribute read as follows: “He was highly distinguished in the service, by the peculiar elegance of his salute, which, added to his veteran appearance, and martial air, excited general admiration, and he was highly respected and regarded in the regiment for the integrity of his character.”[11]

Clearly a deserving and gregarious figure, Lyster was a superlative prince of pomp and circumstance – truly a drum-major fit for a king.

Written and researched by Eamonn O’Keeffe, July 2016

[1] WO 121/10/96 and WO 121/171/125, UK National Archives (TNA).
[2] WO 97/634/66, TNA.
[3] NAM Accession Number 1989-03-43-1. Oil on canvas, circle of Arthur William Devis (1763-1822), c.1804.
[4] WO 120/8, Chelsea Pensioners Registers, TNA. Lyster is noted here as 45 years of age at discharge, placing his birth circa 1735. However, Lyster’s obituaries give his age at death as 79, placing his birth circa 1732. On Lyster’s service, see also WO 121/162/234, TNA for a c.1805 petition he submitted in the hopes of drawing his Chelsea pension while still serving in the Staffordshire Militia.
[5] The Monthly Magazine, Vol. 31, Part I for 1811 (London: Richard Phillips, 1811), p.496. A ‘John Lister’ fought with the 3/60th (Royal American) Regiment at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham but was probably a different man.
[6] C.H. Wylly, Charrington and Bulwer, Historical Records of the 1st King’s Own Stafford Militia, (Lichfield, 1902), pp. 11-12.
[7] George Thomas Landmann, Adventures and Recollections of Colonel Landmann, Vol. II, (London: Colburn and Co., 1852), pp. 319-320.
[8] Ibid, pp. 320-321.
[9] Thomas Jackson, Narrative of the Eventful Life of Thomas Jackson (Birmingham: Josiah Allen and Son, 1847), pp. 10-11.
[10] The Monthly Magazine, Vol. 31, Part I for 1811 (London: Richard Phillips, 1811), p. 496.
[11] Thomas Fernyhough, Military memoirs of four brothers (London: Joseph Masters, 1838), p. 280.