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1837: Workhouse to Warrior (2 of 3)

HMS Edinburgh

In the first instalment we learned how a young Richard Chatfield worked at the Talbot Inn as an ostler. Now we read how he joined the Navy as a marine and went on to have a distinguished service.

The cure was found by a recruiting sergeant of the Marines, and on September 30, 1837, Chatfield found himself occupying the rank of a full private in the Royal Marine Light Infantry.

Private Chatfield had not to wait long before he saw active service. On board HMS. Edinburgh, he was present at the memorable siege of St. Jean D'Acre fortress which had baffled all the genius of Napoleon forty years before. But it fell before the attacks of the British fleet and Army, under the command of Sir Sydney Smith. The Egyptian Army, under Ibraham, was driven back, and the Sultan was saved from the attacks of his rebellious Pacha. Chatfield's memory of this siege centres round a lucky shot from the Edinburgh, which fell into the magazine and killed 1200 of the enemy; by the explosion.

‘That finished it’, said the old man, as his eyes lit up with the recollection of the battle. ‘It was on November 3rd 1840, and it was all about very little: we heard the Egyptians were trying to break away from the Turks, and that England was helping them’.

Opium War in China

The Army had nothing to do with politics. Its duty was to go where it was sent and beat the enemy. After the war, in Syria came the Opium war with China. This is not a war which we can look back on with any great satisfaction, but the Marines did their duty as usual and Chatfield did his. There was the attack on Canton, and the route of the Chinese army, who came down with bows and arrows and hideous masks to frighten the foreign devils into the sea.

The Crimea

After the China war came service in all parts of the world. It was a time of peace, to be broken in upon by the great struggle in the Crimea, where Sergant Chatfield, as he had then become, served in the trenches. The hardship of that time has left its mark on the old soldier, and he attributes his present infirmities to that terrible Crimean winter, which destroyed the flower of the British Army.

Maoris in New Zealand

After the Crimea there came the trouble with the Maoris in New Zealand and Sergeant Chatfield was in the thick of it. Here he did a deed of gallantry which in these days would have got him the Victoria Cross and made his name ring throughout the Empire. ‘We were landing parties before daybreak,’ he said, ‘in order to surprise the enemy. One morning before daylight the Maoris surprised us, and shot down the officer in command, Commander Robinson and two of the sergeants. That left me in command of the party.’

Gallantry under fire

‘In the confusion somebody shouted. 'Back to the stockades.’ But I stopped the panic and made the men lie down until daybreak - daylight came and we found Comanander Robinson severely wounded. The two other sergeants were dead. ‘Calling for a volunteer, I and another man crawled along to where Commander Robinson was lying. We were under fire the whole time, but we managed to carry him off, and I got the whole party back safely to the ship.’

Severe discipline

What splendid stuff these old soldiers with their twenty years' service in every, clime did make. Yet the discipline was terrible in its ruthless severity. Men were frequently flogged for what would nowadays be considered small offences. Sergeant Chatfield has a story of his own to tell which shows how even a splendid soldier like himself could be subject to an injustice which would have turned a smaller man against his fellows and against the service generally.

One day, he was on duty as sergeant at the back of the barracks at Gosport. His duty was to see that no one came out to smoke without his jacket on. It was a blazing hot day, and the sergeant went to the canteen and ordered half a pint of ale. He was seen by the adjutant, who placed him under arrest, and the next day he had to appear before the commanding officer.

Reduced to the ranks

Very costly was this modest half-pint. He was reduced to the ranks. This meant the loss of two years' pension as a sergeant, of a long service medal - which brings with it a gratuity of £14 and twopence a day of his pension - which, by, the way, he has been drawing for nearly fifty-one years.

Well might the adjutant tell him the delay after the sentence that he was sorry he had reported him. But what can we say about the conscienceless martinet, with a soul made of pipeclay, who treated a promising young soldier like this?

However, it is satisfactory to note that Chatfield was made a corporal two years after, and on the next day he received back the coveted sergeant's stripes. On his return from the Crimea, in 1856, he was promoted to the rank of colour-sergeant.

Finally, In 1860, Chatfield retired from the army, with twenty-three years' service to his credit. It is curious to notice that, in spite of all the active service he saw, and in spite of all the hot engagements he never had a scratch of any kind.

In the next article we read about what Chatfield survived a murderous attack and finally retired to Ansty.


‘Lloyd’s News article reproduced in Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners' Advocate (NSW), 13 May 1911, page 11.

Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper, called the Sunday News after 1924, was an early Sunday newspaper in the United Kingdom, launched by Edward Lloyd in 1842, and ceased publication in 1931. It was the first of three popular papers to be created for those who only had the leisure to read on Sundays. It was followed by the News of the World in 1843 and Reynold's News in 1850. Wikipedia.

The HMS Edinburgh going into Singapore Roads, 19th century, by Henry Bonham Bax, Private Collection

HMS Edinburgh

HMS Edinburgh was a 74-gun third rate ship of the line of the Royal Navy, launched on 26 November 1811 at Rotherhithe. Between 1837 and 1841 she served in the Mediterranean, including operations off the coast of Syria and Lebanon in the Syrian War. In 1846 she was taken in hand at Portsmouth Dockyard and converted to steam-powered screw propulsion as a 'blockship'. The conversion was completed on 19 August 1852. In this transformation her displacement was increased to 2,598 tons and her complement of guns reduced to 60 (or 56 - thereports differ).

She acted as guard ship for Devonport until February 1854, when she was assigned to the fleet sent to the Baltic under Sir Charles Napier. She was the flagship of Rear-Admiral Henry Ducie Chads, third in command of the fleet, and took part in the bombardment and capture of the Russian fortress of Bomarsund on Åland. She returned to the Baltic in 1855. Subsequently she was a guard ship at Sheerness and at Leith, and was sold out of the Navy for breaking up in 1866. Wikipedia.

Detail from painting by John Lynn: The 'Vernon' and other vessels (HM Ships 'Edinburgh' and 'Blenheim'). Wikimedia public domain image.

The painting below: Destroying Chinese war junks, by E. Duncan (1843). Wikimedia public domain image.

Jollies a nickname for the Royal Marines in the British Navy. Originally all soldiers carried on board a British warship were known as jollies, a ‘tame jolly’ being a militiaman and a ‘royal jolly’ a marine, but later the name was only applied to marines

The Marines

In 1855, the marine Infantry forces were renamed the Royal Marines Light Infantry (RMLI) and in 1862 the name was slightly altered to Royal Marine Light Infantry. The Royal Navy only saw limited active service at sea after 1850 (until 1914) and became interested in developing the concept of landings by Naval Brigades. In these Naval Brigades, the function of the Royal Marines was to land first and act as skirmishers ahead of sailors trained as conventional infantry and artillery. This skirmishing was the traditional function of light infantry.

During the Crimean War in 1854 and 1855, three Royal Marines earned the Victoria Cross, two in the Crimea and one in the Baltic.

For most of their history, British Marines had been organised as fusiliers. In the rest of the 19th Century the Royal Marines served in many landings especially in the First and Second Opium Wars (1839–1842 and 1856–1860) against the Chinese. These were all successful except for the landing at the Mouth of the Peiho in 1859, where Admiral Sir James Hope ordered a landing across extensive mud flats. Wikipedia.

Contributed by Malcolm Davison.


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