L is for Sergeant William Lawrence

There’s no reason to dispute the basic facts about William Lawrence’s life that can be found in his own autobiography. He was born in 1791 in the village of Bryant’s Piddle in Dorset (no bowdlerised Puddle for him), was apprenticed to Henry Bush, a Studland builder, didn’t care for life as an apprentice, walked to Taunton and enlisted in the 40th (2nd Somersetshire) Regiment in 1804. He served with the same regiment in South America, the Peninsula, North America, and at Waterloo before being discharged in 1819. He re-enlisted briefly in the 3rd Veteran Battalion, serving on excise duties in Ireland, before finally leaving the army in 1821. He returned to Studland and found employment which was necessary as his pension was nine pence a day, later increased to a shilling. At some unspecified date he and his wife opened a pub originally called The Wellington Arms but shown as The Waterloo Inn with Lawrence as landlord in a trade directory for 1855. Later still he gave up by the pub because he began “to feel unwell” and must have been employed in some capacity on the Kingston Lacy estate since Bankes describes in his preface him as “a servant”. He died in 1869.

Lawrence’s account of regimental life is echoed by the regimental history. This isn’t surprising; Captain Smythies used Lawrence’s autobiography as one of his main sources. In a footnote, Smythies remarks, “The old soldier’s memory must have been excellent, for the dates and names he gives correspond in a remarkable degree with those in the Regimental Record Book, and there seems every reason to accept as accurate the stories and anecdotes which he relates.” On one occasion Smythies corrects Lawrence noting that there was no officer called Elland in the assault on Badajos and subsituting Ayling, but in the main he is content to rely on Lawrence, quoting him verbatim for several pages in his account of Waterloo. Below is the uniform of the 40th in 1815 as depicted by P W Reynolds in Smythies’ History.

Since Smythies’ day, Lawrence has been cited hundreds of times. You’ll find him in the index of most books about the British army in the Peninsula. Edward J Cass in All for the King’s Shilling, a book that decries the notion of a universal soldier, uses Sergeant Lawrence and Sergeant Donaldson of the 94th to establish a stereotypical picture of redcoats as “uniquely British creatures of the early nineteenth century.” Yet clearly these two men have little in common. Donaldson was head clerk of the Glasgow Military District when he determined to become a surgeon. He wrote Recollections of a Military Life and two further books to finance his studies. Lawrence was an ex-publican who dictated his memoirs to a fellow servant because the Bankes family required him to do do. Both men are entirely unlike a third anonymous sergeant who saw the manifest hand of God in the most mundane events and published his recollections in Memoirs of a Sergeant late in the 43rd Light Infantry Regiment by way of spreading the gospel. (And, by the way, if you’re looking for a fourth sergeant, Gareth Glover has recently edited The Peninsular War Journal of Sergeant Samuel Harrison also of the 43rd.)

It is the element of compulsion that makes Lawrence’s book even less reliable than you would expect of an account dictated from memory to a probably not wholly enthusiastic scribe more than thirty years after the events concerned. Bankes in his preface says of Lawrence that he “never learned to write.” Hence the need for an amanuensis. Yet on page 241, on his first return home after the wars, Lawrence recounts how his “mother brought out every letter sent by me during my absence from the first to the last, and made me listen to them being read, which by the time night came on had almost sent me crazy.” Enough letters then to make one suspect that Lawrence’s later illiteracy was feigned, despite some writers making so much of it, since illiteracy, they seem to think, is an essential attribute of an authentic voice from the ranks.

Here is Lawrence as imagined by Dawn Waring. And in one way it’s fair enough as a representation because this is probably much as the Bankes family would have wanted him to appear. Some of the iconography – the patched uniform and the polished shako plate – speaks for itself. The cockerel is Tom who lived in Lawrence’s knapsack for a time and accompanied him by default into action at Busaco. Tom was fed tit-bits by everyone in Lawrence’s mess and had grown quite fat by the time he vanishes from the narrative. The fragile clay pipe is also unlikely to have survived for long. Lawrence was an occasional smoker, but on occasions such as the one when he met his brother William again, he has to order “beer and tobacco with pipes” from a local public house.

Corfe Castle

Time for a word or two about the Bankes family. In Lawrence’s day you could walk from Kingston Lacy to Swanage without leaving Bankes’ land. The family’s fortune originated with Sir John Bankes (1589-1644) one of King Charles I privy councilors. Famously his widow, Dame Mary, held the family home, Corfe Castle, for the king until well into 1646. The castle was slighted, but her courage was much admired and she was allowed to keep the keys which are still on view at Kingston Lacy, the grand house built by her son Ralph to replace Corfe.

At the beginning of the 19th Century Kingston Lacy was owned by William John Bankes, a noted antiquary and traveller, who was obliged to go into exile after an indiscretion with a guardsman. His brother George managed the estate in his absence and briefly inherited in 1855 before dying in 1856. George Nugent Bankes (1860-1935) who edited Lawrence was the grandson of this George Bankes. His father was Henry Hyde Nugent Bankes (1828-1883) a barrister and author of what sounds like a shocker; Melchior Gorles – a tale of modern mesmerism. George Nugent Bankes’ grandfather George never lived at Kingston Lacy, preferring a seaside villa in Studland when he wasn’t in London. My guess is that it was the older George who heard about the inn-keeper and veteran soldier, William Lawrence, during one of his visits to Studland, and that it was he who arranged for Lawrence’s stories to be written down. Nearly at the end of the book Lawrence says, “I am now living in a house that was bequeathed to me for as long as I live by my late master….”

George Nugent Bankes, Lawrence’s editor, was a prolific author. Apart from A Day of My Life at Eton, a topic which even an Etonian might think deserved less than a full length book, he wrote An Eton Boy’s Letters, A Cambridge Staircase and Across France in a Caravan, milestones in a biography if anyone could be bothered to write one. Leading Insurance Men of the British Empire, which he co-authored, is less promising. Bankes figures in volume 3 of Julie Coleman’s A History of Cant and Slang Dictionaries where she finds space for the Etonian usage “staying out is what we do when we are ill, that is, we stay in doors.”

George Nugent Bankes makes much in his preface about having done no more than tidy up the punctuation of Lawrence’s amanuensis. It doesn’t appear to have occurred to him that the stories Lawrence told as an innkeeper were almost certainly embellished over time and most likely incorporated stories he was told by his customers. This confusion was doubled when Lawrence was obliged to set his stories in stone by having them written down. In this light, Bankes’ assertion “that to the mind of a man in Lawrence’s position the obtaining of a pair of boots was apparently quite as important an event as the storming of Badajoz” may tell us more about what Lawrence’s benefactors expected of a man like him rather than about his thinking processes.

The point is that Bankes then, like Cass now, is determined to present Lawrence as a typical British soldier of Wellington’s army. Bankes, no doubt, would have been outraged to be represented as a typical mid-Victorian scion of a landed family. Likewise Cass would bridle at being called a typical early 21st Century American academic. Stereotypes are fine for the lower orders but not for them.

And so to Waterloo and one of the most celebrated descriptions of being there.

“About four o’clock I was ordered to the colours. This, although I was as used to warfare as much as any, was a job I did not at all like; but still I went as boldly to work as I could. There had been before me that day fourteen sergeants already killed and wounded while in charge of those colours, with officers in proportion, and the staff and colours were almost cut to pieces. This job will never be blotted from my memory: although I am now an old man, I remember it as if it had been yesterday. I had not been there more than a quarter of an hour when a cannon-ball came and took the captain’s head clean off. This was again close to me, for my left side was touching the poor captain’s right, and I was spattered all over with his blood….”

Unfortunately this is almost completely spurious. The only captain of the 40th to die in the battle was Captain Fisher whose company was on the left flank. The shot that took his head off put twenty five men out of action. Major Stretton described it to Siborne as “the most destructive shot I ever witnessed.” It’s entirely possible that Lawrence was standing next to Fisher, but he wasn’t holding the colours if he was. There were fifty five sergeants present before the battle, and Lawrence certainly wasn’t fifteenth in order of seniority which he would have had to be if “ordered to the colours”. As a matter of fact, there were nineteen sergeants in total killed and wounded. The number of officers laid low while holding the colours can’t have been “in proportion” since only thirteen in total were killed or wounded including Major Heyland, the commanding officer. None of these facts are difficult to find. They are all in Smythies’ Historical Records as is Lawrence’s account which stands in contradiction to them.

None of this does anything to undermine Lawerence’s standing as a brave man who fully deserved his Waterloo medal. It is just a sad consequence of the old ex-publican having been required to substantiate his bar-room stories.

There are, of course, parts of Lawrence’s Autobiography that are likely to be accurate. As Sir Charles Oman remarks in Wellington’s Army, “The autobiographical record of a flogging is rather rare – the diarist in the ranks was generally a steady sort of fellow, who did not get into the worst trouble.” Lawrence wasn’t steady as a young man. He was sentenced to four hundred lashes, and endured nearly half of them which put him in hospital for three weeks. I can think of only one other soldier of Wellington’s Peninsular army who writes about being flogged, Charles O’Neill of the 83rd (later a Captain) whose Military Adventures escaped Oman’s notice. So far as the punishment goes, Lawrence and O’Neill’s accounts coincide; however, their misdemeanours were very different, Lawrence being charged with absence while on guard duty, while O’Neill was charged for refusing to attend an Anglican service when there was a Roman Catholic service being held in the neighbourhood.

And now, because life is really quite complicated and reluctant to fit into pigeon-holes, I’m going to mention an event recorded only by Lawrence and remembered by him only because it earned him a buckshee sixpence. The photo above is of the Peace Memorial erected at Chicksands Priory in 1815, while the regiment was still part of the Army of Occupation, by General Sir George Osborn, a veteran of the American War of Independence and Regimental Colonel of the 40th. At the same time Osborn sent to France a new set of Colours to replace the Colours shot to pieces at Waterloo. In March 1817 it was decided to reduce the size of the army of occupation and the 40th were redeployed to Glasgow. Sometime between then and his death on 29th June 1818, Sir George went up to Glasgow and formally re-presented the set of Colours he’d already sent to France. The ceremony is recorded by Lawrence and, so far as I know, by no-one else. And the reason Lawrence remembers is because the old General gave each man on parade sixpence to drink his health.

Chicksands Abbey, as it is now called, is today a Defence Intelligence and Security Centre. The original memorial read:

The Officers Non Commissioned Officers & Private Soldiers
of the Fortieth Regiment of foot
who gloriously fell in Contest
maintained by Great Britain against revolutionary France
commencing in the year 1793
and terminating in the year 1815
by the Battle of Waterloo and the Capture of Paris
This Pillar is erected
by General Sir George Osbourn Bart. their Colonel
In humble Gratitude to Divine Providence
for the Success of His Majesty’s Arms
and for the Restoration of the Blessings
Of Peace

It was restored and moved in 1856

This Pillar
Was restored and removed to its present site
By Sir George Robert Osbourn Baronet
In commemoration of a
Treaty of Paris
Signed at Paris
on the thirtieth day of March 1856
between the Allied Powers of
Great Britain, France, Sardinia and Turkey
and the one side, and
Russia
On the other, at the termination
Of the arduous, and memorable Campaign of the
Crimea
Alma, Balaclava, Inkermann, Sebastopol

And yet again – this time at American expense – in 1976

This monument
was restored and removed in 1975/76 to this
its third location by members of
the United States Air Force stationed at
Royal Air Force Chicksands
in recognition of the lasting bonds of
friendship between the peoples of America
and to commemorate
25 years of operations here by the United States
Air Force security service, the bicentennial of
American independence and European
architectural heritage year.

I want to conclude with Lawrence’s wife Clotilde. He met her in 1816 when he was part of the army of occupation in Paris and she operated a movable stall selling tobacco, snuff and spirits as well as vegetables grown by her father in his market garden at St Germain en Laye. Lawrence learned French before they married, and it was still the language they spoke together when he first returned to Briant’s Piddle. She was as determined a pedestrian as him, walking with him from Glasgow to Dorset and back again on his first furlough. Later she learned English and held the license for The Wellington Arms jointly with her husband. (The Bankes Arms – despite claims on its website – has no links with the Lawrences. Their pub was on the other side of the road.) Clotilde died in 1853 and is buried in Studland. Lawrence was buried next to her in 1869.

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