Wednesday 7 February 2018

The Last Of The Line

The Royal Collection has in addition to a great deal of great and not so great art, etchings and drawings, but from the early years of photography, expensive enough in the late 19th Century to be an art form, and a number of items that caught the Imperial eye of HM Queen Victoria.

The picture above is a striking example. Taken on 7th June 1880 it is of the five living veterans of the 1815 Battle of Waterloo who were "in pensioners" of the Chelsea Hospital. Probably also there were "out" ones living here and there and other veterans, not pensioners and doubtless a few unknown at the time.

It is difficult to know which to look at first, but perhaps starting with the saddest story, Benjamin Bumstead, from Kent born 1797, of the 73rd Regiment of Foot, this would have been the 2nd Battalion. Wikipedia says that " The battalion fought in the Battle of Quatre Bras on 16 June 1815 where they lost 53 men killed and wounded.

Two days later at the Battle of Waterloo on 18 June, the regiment was charged by French Cavalry no less than 11 times during the battle and bombarded by French artillery. It remained in square without breaking. The battalion lost 6 officers and 225 men killed and wounded."

By 1841 he is back in Kent married to a Jane and a labourer, and they have two children. Two years later she moves in with a William Edwards, has more children and by 1851 Benjamin is in the Workhouse. In 1861 there is no record of him, but in 1871 he is again in the Workhouse. He says he is unmarried but there has never been a divorce. It is not difficult to imagine that by his late 40's he was a broken man.

For Robert Norton, the picture creates a problem. He is shown as having served with the 34th Regiment of Foot, when in fact it was the 54th West Norfolk Regiment of Foot. His death on 28 July 1881 was widely reported in the local press in Norfolk. The shifts and reorganisations of regiments during the 19th Century could lead to confusion later.

The regiment seems to have had a relatively minor role at the battle and perhaps the lack of a real study of its history in the 19th Century means that not enough is known. By 1841 Robert is back in Norwich and working as a silk weaver. He seems to have been a political activist. The Norwich Mercury in 1881 says that he was an ardent politician and never failing attendant at political meetings. The weavers in that day and age had a reputation for militancy.

Sampson/Samson Webb, who served with the 3rd Foot Guards, the Scots might be thought to be Scots, but regiments could pick up recruits anywhere in their travels and did. He was born in Ludlow, Shropshire and returned to Shrewsbury after his service.

He married a Wiltshire girl, Rachel Attwood, and their first son was born at Westminster around 1831 suggesting that his battalion was on public duties. The second son was born three years later at Ludlow. In 1851 he is listed as a Sergeant in the Militia, still Army. By 1861 he is a furniture polisher and Chelsea Out Pensioner. Rachel died in 1869 and not long after becomes an "In".

There was a Scotsman in the picture, however, John McKay of the 42nd Regiment of Foot. Better known as The Black Watch this was one of the finest regiments of the British and for that matter any army in history. I confess a slight prejudice, an ancestor served with them in the Peninsular War, but did not make it to Waterloo.

This article deals with him:

A Waterloo Man - Private John McKay, 42nd (Royal Highland) Regiment of Foot by Andrew Thornton

John McKay attested for the 42nd (Royal Highland) Regiment of Foot at Caithness on 25 February 1810, aged 15. He fought at Quatre Bras and was wounded at Waterloo. John continued to serve with the 42nd Foot until he was discharged on 22 November 1837, having also seen service in France, Gibraltar, Malta and at home stations.

He married in 1831 and he and his wife Harriott had two sons. Later admitted as an In-Pensioner at the Royal Hospital, John was one of the last surviving veterans of Waterloo. The Edinburgh Evening News published the following article about him in their 12 April 1886 edition: A WATERLOO VETERAN: “The last survivor of Waterloo in Chelsea Hospital, John Mackay (sic), who fought in the ranks of the 42d Highlanders, enjoys excellent health and is generally in good spirits.

There is, according to the Army and Navy Gazette, little reason to doubt that this sturdy Scot is actually 103 years old. He is a broad-shouldered, big-chested man, below middle height, and is still fairly erect. The old boy seldom gets up now, not from debility, but because he is getting fat and lazy. He likes his pipe and his glass, and occasionally sings a little song after a fashion.

His memory is rather “mixed,” but otherwise he is wonderfully well.” John’s good health was not to last and he died on 7 July 1886. His death was widely reported, this article being printed in The York Herald on 10 July 1886: A WATERLOO VETERAN. “An old Waterloo veteran, John McKay, late 42nd Highlanders, died on Wednesday last at the Royal Hospital, Chelsea.

He was in his 102nd year. He was wounded in the hand, in the leg, and in the face at Waterloo. He was a cheery old man and was well up to a few days ago, when he was struck by paralysis.” John McKay was buried at the West London and Westminster Cemetery in Old Brompton on 9 July 1886.


The Army and Navy Gazette of 10 July 1886 has a major item on his death and points out that there were three of that name with the 42nd at Waterloo and he was certainly one, and injured in the hand and leg.

He was five foot five and three quarter inches tall and described as big. One source says he was attested, that is signed on in Caithness, but if he was a labourer after leaving the army it would be difficult to track him through the Census returns, possibly in Scotland.

An irony of the Gazette report is that after the McKay piece a couple of items down it lists regiments that are going to India for a tour of duty. One is the 7th Hussars, see Hannay next.

Last and not least is Naish Hannay, or Nash Hanney etc. for whom there is a full run of Census Returns from 1841 to 1881. He was a boy from Bath in Somerset, in 1808 apprenticed to Thomas Halliday to be a joiner. Soon after he joined the Army instead, the 7th Dragoons/Hussars needing to do some active recruiting. He was not long in the Army marrying Susannah Daw in 1818, a local girl.

Their locations are Walcot and Lyncombe, then villages on the edge of Bath, but by the end of the 19th Century becoming suburbs. In 1841 he is a porter, 1851 a cabinet maker, in 1861 again a porter and in 1871 up a notch to be an auctioneers porter. Susannah died in 1864, he was granted an out pension in 1867 and then became an in pensioner in 1877 and died in 1881 being buried at Brompton. It seems ordinary but it is the Bath that has interest.

Because when he was growing up in Bath and its area the Austen family were there as was Mrs. Piozzi. She had been Mrs. Hester Thrale and was born a Salusbury. She was a leading light in the world of literature and the arts, close to Dr. Samuel Johnson and all his circle. As for the Austen family, did Jane ever bump into that scruffy little boy destined to be a cabinet maker? Did Mrs. Piozzi ever send him on errands?

The question in my mind is the surname. One of the heroic figures in John Buchan's works is the Richard Hannay of "The 39 Steps". How did he come by that name? GB Shaw famously borrowed his gardener's name for "Pygmalion". Can there be a connection?

The difficulty with a study of this kind, is once some links are found in turn they lead to other links in a complex web. There was time when the Austen's visited Kent and were just along the road from where Benjamin Bumstead was born.

My last comment is that John McKay and Sampson Webb were both at the Battle of Salamanca in Spain. This was a crucial battle and possibly the turning point of that campaign and some think the beginning of the end for Napoleon. Wellesley, the victor of Waterloo and later the Duke of Wellington was up on the hills watching the counter marching of the armies.

Then he saw a gap open up in the French line of march and seized the moment for the British to attack. Without that moment there might never have been a Waterloo. 


  1. He likes his pipe and his glass,

    No doubt the reason for his premature death.

  2. Interesting. So many lost stories.

  3. Jack Ketch - If only he'd lived nearer our time he might have heeded the ever present warnings and still be alive. Pick the sense out of that lot.

  4. Benjamin Bumstead

    Presumably great grandfather of Dagwood.

  5. On checking there were Bumstead's in Chicago at the time when Chic Young the cartoonist was growing up there.