An eager recruit and a disgraced guardsman


Two military related stories from  the police courts today that reveal a little about the attraction and realities of life in the Victorian armed forces.

First that of William Ames Rowbotham who was a ‘fine-built’ young man of 18 and served in Her Majesty’s 11th Regiment of Foot (the Devonshires).

When he was recruited William had to swear that he was not an apprentice (and so hadn’t run away from any obligations). He swore to Sergeant Cooper that he had been one, but not for 3 or 4 years. He said that persons had told him that since he had been apprenticed after the age of 14 he allowed to enlist.

The magistrate at Westminster remanded William and asked that these ‘persons’ be found because he was in error and having left his lawful apprenticeship (we know not as what) he liable to punishment.

Charles Cracknell’s case was more straightforward. Cracknell had been discharged from the Coldstream Guards, indeed he had been ‘drummed out in disgrace’. He was at Westminster charged with stealing a coat that belonged to his former colour-sergeant. He had stolen it from the sergeant’s room in the Chelsea Barracks and removed the military buttons and decorations before selling it to a woman in Westminster for 2s.

She appeared in court to testify that when she was summonsed for receiving the coat (she said hadn’t known was stolen) she had given a description that led to Cracknell’s arrest. The magistrate remanded him in custody.

The army had a high profile in Victorian society, probably enjoying greater public affection than they had ever done previously. But stories about the military still fell into the two tropes surrounding soldiery: they were either brave and daring or criminal and violent. They were a necessary in wartime (and Britain fought a series of colonial wars in the 19th century, culminating in the South African [Boer] War of 1899-1902) but a burden or a danger in peace.

As Kipling wrote:

We aren’t no thin red ‘eroes, now we aren’t no blackguards too.But single men in barricks, most remarkable like you. (Tommy, 1892)

[From The Morning Post, Friday, August 27, 1869]

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