The 1850s was a busy time for the British armed forces. The major conflict was that with Russia in the Crimea, but 1857 had seen rebellion in India, which was eventually crushed with heavy reprisals. Britain and France had joined forces in the Crimea and did so again in an imperialist war in China, which resulted in the destruction of the Qing army and the looting of the imperial palaces in Beijing. The British expedition in China was led by the 8thLord Elgin who had inherited not only his father’s name but also his lack of scruples in stealing other peoples’ heritage. Along with the Crimea, India and China, British troops were also involved in conflicts in Persia (modern Iran), and then later in Burma (Myanmar) Bhutan and Abyssinia (Ethiopia).
Being a soldier in the British Army certainly offered you the chance to see the world then, but perhaps with a higher degree of risk and much more travelling than some might have liked.
William Parsons had clearly had enough by 1856 and he deserted his regiment and escaped their attention for three years. His downfall was his inability to stay out of trouble with the law (which was often the reason that some joined the colours in the first place, because it offered discipline, food and shelter, and a steady income).
In May 1859 Parsons was arrested after he stole a handkerchief from a sailor in Billingsgate market. Arthur Ewes had recently docked at Fresh Wharf with his ship and had decided to explore Billingsgate. Feeling a hand in his pocket he spun around to find Parsons holding his handkerchief.
He demanded the man give him back his handkerchief:
‘What handkerchief?’ Parsons replied. ‘That one which you just took out of my pocket’, the seaman told him before making a grab for it as Parsons dropped it and ran off.
He was quickly apprehended in the busy market and produced before Alderman Cubitt at the Mansion House Police court on the Saturday morning following the arrest.
Parsons said he’d never been in trouble with the law before but the gaoler scoffed at this, saying he’d been there ‘several times’. More importantly perhaps, a soldier now took the stand and declared that Parsons was a deserter, missing, as we’ve heard, since 1856.
At this point William probably realized his choices were limited; he could go to prison for the theft (and if previous convictions were proved this might be a lengthy spell) or he could try and rejoin his regiment and face the disciplinary consequences (hardly likely to be pleasant) that would entail. He opted for the army and stated his willingness to return to the Queen’s service.
That was all very well Alderman Cubitt remarked but he would have to pay for the crime he’d committed first: he would go to prison with hard labour for three months and then he handed over to the commanding officer of his regiment. If he was lucky I imagine he would have been simply given menial duties for a few months on his return to the army. However, he may have been flogged for his desertion as this was not abolished for servicemen at home until 1868, and persisted in active service abroad until 1881.
So William’s inability to keep his head down and find paid work was what undid him in the end. Deserters were sometimes tattooed (with a ‘D’) when they were caught, to make it clear to everyone that they had abandoned their comrades and let down their country. But joining the army (or the navy) was not the career choice we see it as today. For large numbers of poor young men in Victorian Britain it represented the lesser of two evils; a chance to escape grinding poverty and just the sort of hand by mouth existence that led William Parsons to filch a ‘wipe’ in a London fish market.
[from Reynolds’s Newspaper , Sunday, May 8, 1859]