The Battle of Magdala, 1868
When PC William Towsey of the City constabulary turned into Bishopsgate Churchyard on his beat he saw a man and young girl on Alderman’s Walk opposite. It was 10 at night and the man was dressed in a soldier’s uniform while the little girl appeared to be about ten years of age. She also seemed uncomfortable in the man’s company and to be trying to get away from him. When he saw the soldier assault her, he quickly moved towards them and seized the man.
PC Towsey took the pair back to the police station but there the girl took advantage of her attacker incapacitation and escaped, running out into the night. The next morning the constable and his prisoner appeared at the Mansion House Police court in front of the incumbent Lord Mayor.
Thomas Nidlet was stood in the dock and accused of being drunk and committing an assault on the girl. There are no details given the newspaper report so we don’t know what sort of assault this was, or who the girl was. Nidlet said he was from the 33rd regiment of foot and that he had arrived back from Abyssinia, landing in Portsmouth just over a month ago. He’d been on furlough for a month and had come to the capital.
Nidlet had been at the police station before that evening; at around 8 he’d turned up, a little tipsy, with ‘a gentleman’ and had enquired about a place to stay. The mysterious gentleman had given the soldier a sovereign, on the strength of him producing a payment order for £5, presumably his accumulated wages. By the time of the incident at the churchyard Nidlet was reportedly very drunk, so he and the other man had seemingly been drinking heavily for another couple of hours.
The Lord Mayor asked the soldier if he knew the man’s name and address. He did but the newspaper didn’t record it. This almost satisfied the magistrate but he wanted to hear from this potential witness so he remanded Nidlet for a few days but indicated that he would discharge him after that. As he gave his judgment the Lord Mayor advised the soldier to return to his regiment as soon as possible, to avoid any further trouble in the capital.
I do wonder at this story. Who was the little girl? Was she one of the capital’s homeless street children? Was the soldier’s attempted assault sexual? What role did the gentleman play in all of this, and was he even a ‘gentleman’? The mystery must remain unsolved however, as that is the last time he troubles history in the capital. After this report he disappears without a trace.
The 33rd regiment (West Yorkshire) of foot had been commanded by the Duke of Wellington and after the duke’s death in 1852 Queen Victoria recognized their association with the nation’s greatest land commander by renaming them the 33rd(or Duke of Wellington’s Regiment). In 1868 the 33rdwere sent to Ethiopia (then Abyssinia) to effect a rescue of some British, European and native hostages that were held by Emperor Tewodros II. Despite the later release of the Europeans Tewodros’ refusal to accept surrender terms led to an assault on the fortress of Magdala (now Amba Mariam) and its seizure. Although the force was described as Britsih it was mostly made up of Indian troops and was commanded by General Sir Robert Napier, from the Royal Engineers.
It was an incredible expedition, involving a 400-mile march over challenging terrain. Napier built 20 miles of railway, a harbor and warehouses to ensure he kept his communication lines open and his men supplied. The assault began on the 13 April 1868 and lasted just an hour and half. The emperor’s men were no match for the well equipped troops under Napier’s command. Tewodros (or Theodore) was found dead just inside the gates; he had taken his own life with a pistol that had been a present from Queen Victoria.
Napier’s men looted Magdala and it required 15 elephants to carry the booty back to the coast for transport to England. It was hailed as a great victory, Napier was feted and the men that served awarded ‘Abyssinia’ as a battle honour. All of this would have played to Nidlet’s advantage one imagines. It may be why the ‘gentleman’ was quick to befriend him and help explain why the Lord Mayor was minded to forgive his drunkenness in the City and overlook an alleged attack on one of the capital’s many street ‘urchins’.
[from The Morning Post, Monday, July 13, 1868]