Oldham Historical Research Group

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An Oldhamer at Waterloo gives a first-hand report of the battle that ended the Napoleonic Wars.


There must have been Oldhamers in the thick of it at the Battle of Waterloo but who were they and where are the records? I decided to start with the original diaries of William Rowbottom, which are in safe-keeping at Oldham Local Studies and Archives, to see what clues he might give. William was a weaver who lived near Burnley Lane. He kept his diary from 1787 to 1830 chronicling local happenings, people and national events and I hoped that he might give the names of some Oldhamers who had been involved in this momentous event. However, there was only one entry that mentioned the battle.

On 28th June 1815 he wrote:

A letter arrived from Brussels from Joseph Lord, son of Ann Lord, now wife of Joseph Travis, of Uin Nook, in wich he gives an account of his brother John being slain and he himself wounded in the bloody battle of Waterloo, on the 18th inst.

Almost 70 years later in the 1880s, in the Oldham Standard, which was serialising the diaries, local historian Samuel Andrew added:

This seems to be the first arrival of personal news from Waterloo – ten days after the battle. Many an Oldhamer was there. I have heard many a tale about the arrival in Oldham of the first news. People were almost frantic with excitement, and there was such a rush for the Church bells! It is said that the ringers rang as if they would pull the bells down. One thing is certain at a little village outside Oldham, where there was only one chapel bell. The people would not let the bell alone until they had cracked it with ringing, and broken the bell rope into the bargain. There must have been from thirty to forty soldiers at Waterloo from the district of Oldham.

He continues with a memory of a hair-raising story told by a veteran of the battle:

I well remember a tale from one of them, who shall be nameless. He was wounded on the second day of the fight, and lay most of the day and a whole night with others on the field in a helpless state. As the morning approached he observed a French horse soldier riding over the field, trampling some of the corpses under his horse’s feet, and slashing out right and left, and putting the wounded out of their misery – at least, such as appeared to have any life left and came within his reach. “Now,” though he, as he lay in a gutter, which he had made into a temporary bed, “My turn is coming shortly, and I have as much right to live as this horseman, though I have got a bullet in my leg.” He had kept his shooter by his side ready for any emergency, and as the Frenchman came nearer and would soon have despatched him, he took aim, and picked the Frenchman clean off his horse, though he said it was the only shot of his that he ever knew to take effect.

There must have been many tales of this nature told over a pint or two locally, some true, others flights of fancy, but nowhere, apart from the diary entry mentioned above, are there any names mentioned in records that have survived in the public domain.

It is fairly certain that between 30 and 40 local men were there on the fields outside Brussels for the final battle but who were they? Research using records that are now on-line has led to the discovery of the names of some of these soldiers. Abraham Brierley, Thomas Gibson, Dennis Barrot, John Lord, Joseph Lord and Thomas Mills are among those who were definitely there. The discharge papers exist for some of the men and from these we find that Dennis Barrot, Thomas Gibson and Joseph Lord served in the Life Guards and Thomas Mills was in the 23rd Regiment of Foot.

Their records describe the appearance and height of the men. Life in Oldham may have been hard but the young men were well-nourished and strong as the three who were in the Life Guards were all about 6 feet tall and Thomas Mills, the Foot soldier, was slightly shorter. Unsurprisingly they had all been weavers in civilian life with the exception of Thomas Mills who had been a labourer.

Joseph Lord had enlisted in Bolton at the end of 1807, when he was 22. The weaving trade was in a bad way according to William Rowbottom, who wrote that:

The year 1808 commenced on Friday, wich was a windy, cloudy day, and an uncomon gloomy appearance for Christmas, for the weaving trade in all its branches in the ebb, wich as put the poor into a very deplorable situation, and there is no hopes of better times until a general peace takes place.”

Joseph had married in 1805 and had a wife and baby son to support so, along with many others, he looked for other means of earning a living. The Army offered regular pay and perhaps the young men only thought of the adventure and did not realize what being a soldier really meant. The recruiting sergeants were very convincing in their tales of Army life. Joseph saw service in the Peninsular Campaign and took part in the Battle of Vitoria, which was viewed across Europe as the turning point in the long drawn-out war against Napoleon and the French as is indicated by the fact that even Beethoven was moved to write an orchestral tribute, Wellington's Victory, or, the Battle of Vitoria. By the time of the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 Joseph and the other Oldhamers were hardened soldiers and had been involved in many a bloody, life-threatening exchange at close quarters with the enemy.

Searching the collections at Oldham Local Studies I found an item in the Oldham Chronicle on March 6th 1915 headed Oldham Soldier’s Account of Waterloo. The article mentions descendants of Joseph Lord who were living in Oldham and reproduces their ancestor’s letter, which had been mentioned in William Rowbottom’s diary 100 years before and had been kept safely for a century by the family.

I also found that there are photocopies of Joseph’s letters home, and a poem he wrote after the battle, in the Archives here in Oldham. These had been presented to Councillor Jack Armitage, former Mayor of Oldham, in 1976 by a descendant of Joseph, Miss Dorothy Lord, of Strathfield, NSW, Australia. So, a copy of the letter that was mentioned in a diary in 1815 and had been treasured over the following years by the soldier’s family still exists for us to read in the present day. The letters are full of details of the experiences of one Oldhamer as he took part in the last battle of a long campaign.

Joseph was slightly wounded in the battle and was recuperating in Brussels when he wrote the letter to his wife and another, to his mother, telling of the death of his brother, John, in the battle. To his wife he wrote:

I shall endeavour to give you a short sketch of that battle which will stand high in the records of fame but as one individual like myself who is busily employed cannot be expected to have a knowledge of everything transacted in such an extensive field, so my account will be far short of the whole proceedings. However I’ll give you what particulars fell under my particular notice.”

He gives a detailed account of numbers in each company, his unit, the 2nd Life Guards, part of the elite Household Brigade, comprised about 240 men. He estimated that the British cavalry numbered 9,400. There was a skirmish between the British infantry and the French on the 16th June but nothing more until the afternoon of the 17th when the Life Guards, along with other troops, were attacked by the French coming out of wood to surprise them. Joseph writes vividly about the fierce fighting and retreat over the next few hours in terrible weather:

“ … and we, not meaning to stand them there, as they had great advantage, retreated one brigade supporting another and forming behind each other for 5 to 6 miles. This took us 2 hours or better and during this time such a storm as I never saw in all my life of lightning, thunder and rain, the water came in such quantities that merely to say it rained would be far short of expressing it, for we had nothing dry about us in 15 minutes. We never offered to cloak as it would have been to no purpose.

After we had been retreating an hour and a half they came so fast upon us that we were called upon to arrest their progress as the light dragoons were very near and severely cut off and not able to stand their force. Our brigade formed & the 1st Regiment of Life Guards being the nearest, they were ordered to charge them, which they did to great advantage, as they little imagined we had such strong men and horses in our army. The 1st Life Guards had some men wounded, some took prisoners and some horses killed and wounded, but we got all the prisoners back, again the Blues were next, but the enemy in mean time had got some cannon to bear on us by which the Blues had 3 men killed and some horses, and some men and horses wounded, but they were coming in such numbers that it was not judgement to charge.

Accordingly we took a position about a mile or two to the rear and here they did not dare to engage us as Wellington had the remainder of his troops ready here. It still rained but in a more regular manner and continued so to do all night and all the army formed in line of battle, some of them to the knees in mud and water, nor had we a morsel of bread or meat nor anything for our horses. Here we stopped all night not able to lie down as we should have been smothered in mud and water.”

We can only imagine what Ann Lord was thinking as she read her husband’s letter. She would have been relieved that he had survived yet another battle but what fighting had he been involved in and what scenes had he witnessed on the day of the famous battle itself?

Joseph recounts that the weather cleared up and, just before dawn, as the French were not stirring, wood was gathered to make fires in an attempt to dry their clothes as they were all soaked to the skin. At daybreak beer and food was found (perhaps commandeered from local houses?) and by 10 o’clock the British troops were refreshed, mounted and regrouped on better ground to await the next phase of the battle.

It wasn’t long before action began. Joseph continues his letter:

“ ….About 11 o’clock a very heavy cannonade commenced on both sides which lasted for perhaps an hour and we, being just in the rear of our cannon, we were exposed very much to the fire. Some passed over our heads and through the ranks, others struck the ground a few yards in front of us, at last one struck a man & horse and killed them both, which obliged us to move as they had got their distance. The French cavalry then advanced on our infantry and light dragoons and made havoc among them, as they was Bonaparte’s Imperial Guards and was covered with armour so thick that a musket ball would not pierce them. The shot from the enemy fell like hail and the Imperials coming on them while they were in confusion, they were obliged to retreat for want of succour.

Our brigade was then called for and at a time when the issue of the battle seemed as pending, the English infantry was broke and squandered, cannon shot, grape and canister shot was flying like hail, our infantry making the best of their way to the rear and falling every moment from enemy fire, through all this & even over our own straggling infantry we were obliged to charge, we did so and gave 3 cheers. The moment they saw us coming they turned about and though they were covered with armour and 4 in number to us one, we very near killed all that offered to withstand us. We lost a few killed and many wounded.

No sooner had the remainder of the enemy got clear from us than a battery of 4 guns was directly opposite us opened upon us and terrible slaughter ensued as we were in a lane with a high edge on each side, however we got out as soon as possible we could and charged them and took the guns from them and followed the cavalry again. When we got to them they had been reinforced with another party, ours being greatly diminished by the fire &c from the enemy we could not drive them from the place, however, we got right among them and disputed the ground for several minutes though their numbers 8 for us one. At last however they were beginning to herd us in and we were obliged to retreat through their cavalry and infantry.”

This was just the beginning of the battle, which continued at a furious pace throughout the day, with no let-up in the fighting

excepting it was sitting still in a shower of cannon shot which we did several times till we had the opportunity of charging.”

Joseph tells the family that he had been able to speak to his brother John during a lull in the battle. They had been near one another all day and had, every now and then, checked that they were both still alive as men were falling all around them. About half past four they were all in a valley where the shot was mostly whistling over their heads and he had an opportunity to speak to John. They had both been through harrowing experiences throughout the day not knowing if each minute was to be their last. They spoke about their chances of survival and what messages to convey to the family if either died. Joseph continues, movingly, that:

this was about two and a half hours before he was killed, nor did he receive a wound of any kind before he was killed though he was often in the midst of the French cavalry. At last at the commencement of a charge, the French cannon began to play on our left, and balls flew like hailstones. We had gone halfway on the charge when the ball destined to put an end to his worldly trouble was discharged from the enemy. Thus did I lose the dearest of brothers, and he did not survive two minutes after he received the ball.”

The letter continues with a report on those other Oldhamers who were serving with Joseph. He writes:

I am sorry to inform Samuel Brierley that his brother Abraham is no more, he died on the 30th June in the hospital, he received a ball in the leg which was obliged to be taken off and which occasioned his death. Thomas Gibson was badly wound but is fast recovering, I was wound myself but very slightly on the back of my left hand but it is now quite well. I am with some sick horses at this town where I shall stop some time, write immediately as I am very anxious to know. Dennis Barret from Sholver was wounded but is nearly well in the hospital.”

The men from Oldham who survived the battle continued in the Army for varying lengths of time. Most left because of injury or illness and but Joseph Lord saw out his contracted time.

Thomas Gibson was discharged in November 1816 his papers stating “that in consequence of a wound in the side received at the Battle of Waterloo, having disabled him from attending to his duty”. Thomas Mills lasted until May 1817 when he was discharged, aged 38, “as a consequence of being old and worn and having a gun shot wound in the left breast at Albeura 1811 and wounded left groin at Badajos 1812.” Dennis Barret was discharged in May 1825 when the reason given was “Abcess in the lungs - Consumption occasioned by wound at Waterloo”. Life for the ordinary soldier was hard and brutal as seen from Thomas Mills’ experience of being wounded twice during the Peninsular War but still fighting at Waterloo three years later and then being considered old and worn-out at the age of 38.

Joseph Lord continued his career in the 2nd Life Guards for a further fifteen years until his discharge, in 1830, after 22 years service. Filling in the details of where he served and finding out if he saw any more active service involves more research in sources not available in Oldham. There is a Household Cavalry Archive at Windsor Barracks; perhaps that is where the rest of Joseph’s story will be found.

I was intrigued by the story related in the 1915 Chronicle article that Joseph Lord had been a servant of Lord Castlreagh and had posed for one of the figures on Castlreagh’s monument in St. Paul’s Cathedral. The story handed down in the family was that Joseph had stood motionless for nine hours while his figure was moulded in clay. I attempted to find a suitable statue put nothing fitting the description was found. Yet another line of enquiry to be followed up.

Filling in all the details leading back from the descendants of Joseph and Ann Lord listed in the 1915 Oldham Chronicler article is a daunting task. Names mentioned in the article are 72 year-old grand-daughter Mrs. Hannah Scholes and great-grandsons Sylvester, Charles and Joseph Lord. I have used the usual church, census and civil registration records and found a wealth of information but cannot be certain that I have drawn the correct conclusions as Lord is a commonly-occurring surname in the Oldham area. It may be that some lines have already been researched and it would be good to hear from anyone who has further information so that we can piece together the history of this family.

Written by Mary Pendlebury: April 2015; contributed September 2016

Read the Diaries of William Rowbottom HERE

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