Articles from the Thoroton Society Newsletter

The billeting of a dying soldier

By Keith Fisher

On Friday the 22nd of June 1860 a soldier was given a military funeral in Nottingham Central Cemetery; a sad, but not unusual occurrence. It is only, however, when one reads the details that it becomes clear that it was actually very unusual. Neither the soldier nor his regiment were local. The military honours were not conducted by his regiment but by members of the local militia; the Yeomanry band and the Castle Company of the Rifle Corps.

There were large crowds although none of his family appear to have attended. The service was held by a catholic priest but not in the catholic area of the cemetery. But the most curious aspect was where he died; in Nottingham’s Union Workhouse.

Private Richard Thompson had been a member of the 11th, Prince of Wales Own Hussars stationed in Nottingham Cavalry Barracks in The Park. The barracks were at the end of Barrack Lane off Derby Road near Canning Circus; or Sion Hill as it then was. He was a 22 year old Irish labourer from Derry who had enlisted in the regiment two years previously. The weeks leading up to his death became a local cause celebre.

The circumstances of his demise involved the military, local medical services, the licensed victualler’s association, the magistrates, a question in parliament and, eventually, a member of the royal family. Nottingham Cavalry Barracks was a police barracks. In early 1792 the Deputy Adjutant-General, Colonel Oliver de Lancey, had conducted a clandestine survey of the country. The government's principal concern, after the revolutions in America and France, had been the unrest in the ‘manufacturing towns.’

Colonel de Lancey’s report indicated that he advocated local cavalry barracks, as a backup for the local authorities. Mounted troops were chosen as they were more mobile and intimidating to rioting mobs and, arguably, more disciplined than infantry. This was thirty years before Robert Peel formed his police force.

De Lancey was also concerned about the soldiers, who were billeted in hostelries, becoming sympathetic to the local grievances. He was appointed the first Barrack Master General and one of the first sites to be chosen was Nottingham. The Nottingham site was leased from the Duke of Newcastle for fifty years at a rent of £80 per annum. A Colonel of the 7th Hussars laid the foundation stone in August 1792. The complex consisted of a walled enclosure which could accommodate up to three troops of mounted soldiers.

There were three barrack blocks where the men lived on the first floor over the stables. It also included accommodation for the officers, a canteen, cook house, barn and magazine. It also had a hospital building, situated, it is believed, between the latrines and the dung heap.

Over the next 70 years troops of the mounted regiments were rotated in and out of the various barracks around the country. In September 1859 the first contingent of the 11th Hussars arrived in Nottingham by train. By this time the country's local ‘police’ barracks were being run down. The advent of the railways, professional police forces (the Borough of Nottingham Police was founded in 1841) and local militia regiments had rendered them redundant.

The 11th Hussars turned out to be the last national troops to use the barracks, which was the initial cause of the subsequent events. Sick soldiers were placed in the hospital building. They would have been nursed either by fellow soldiers assigned to the role, or possibly by the small number of soldier’s wives permitted to live in the barracks. In the 1851 census there had been thirteen wives, and sixteen children, all of whom were not allowed to use the hospital if they became ill. Professional medical care was provided by a local doctor; in 1860 this was Dr Charles Crighton Bramwell of Derby Road. As various troops were coming and going all the time, any soldiers too ill to travel would be left in the hospital for the incoming detachment to nurse until he was fit to rejoin his regiment. Early in May Private Thompson was placed in the barrack hospital. According to the doctor he had pleurisy, consumption and abscess of the lungs. On Monday the 28th of May the regiment received a ‘peremptory’ order from head-quarters to leave for Burnley barracks. The removal was so sudden that equipment was left behind and a prisoner managed to escape. As there were no other troops to replace them the problem was what to do with Thompson. Doctor Bramwell initially sent him to Nottingham General Hospital. They refused to take him. The hospital, which was a charitable trust, had several reasons. People in the later stages of consumption were not admitted as inpatients. Soldiers specifically were also inadmissible unless their officers agreed to pay their subsistence money weekly. Also when a regiment was in the barracks, which had its own basic hospital and medical cover, none were admitted unless the case required surgery. In consultation with the officers Dr Bramwell then applied for a billet to place his patient in a local hostelry. The one selected was the Miltons Head Inn on Derby Road. This inn should not be confused with the hotel of the same name which once stood on the corner of Milton Street and Lower Parliament Street. It was on the right hand side of Derby Road between the town and Canning Circus. The inn was built in the 1790s and remained a public house until WW2. The building, No. 84, still stands. The doctor chose this inn because it was near to the barracks and his own house which was also on Derby Road. It was on the right hand side of Derby Road between the town and Canning Circus. A corporal used a cab to deliver Thompson to the inn. Mrs Burton, the landlord's wife, said she could not take him as he was filthy and his breath stank. The corporal declared he could not wait as he had to catch a train.

Shortly afterwards the landlord, John Burton, returned, hailed a cab and had the unfortunate Thompson taken to the Nottingham Union Workhouse. This building used to stand on York Street, where the Victoria Centre bus station and car park is now. As with most union workhouses, it included a rudimentary hospital. Robert Thompson died there three weeks later; from a lung infection and exhaustion, according to his death certificate.

This should have been the end of the story. The military, however, decided to prosecute the landlord for refusing to accept the billet.

Billeting of soldiers on the local population has a long history. This, unsurprisingly, caused friction.

By this time billeting was principally confined to inns and hostelries, especially for cavalry as stabling was required for their horses.

The case was taken before the Nottingham Magistrates and the facts of the case were presented. Burton’s legal representative stated, that as this was a matter of principle, (i.e. could a seriously ill soldier be legally billeted in a hostelry), he would take the case to a higher court, whatever the outcome.

The Mayor, who was chairman of the magistrates, and sympathised with the landlord, found the landlord guilty but fined him the minimum amount of 40 shillings.

Mr Burton’s fine and legal expenses were paid by the local Licenced Victualler’s Association.

The Association also contacted the Nottingham MP, John Mellor, who was also a barrister, and asked him to raise the matter in Parliament. In the House of Commons at the beginning of July, Mellor asked Mr Herbert, the Secretary of State for War, for his thoughts on the matter as “It would be a grievous hardship on publicans if they were to be compelled to convert their houses into hospitals and receive soldiers in that state in which they had been refused admission to the general hospital.”

Mr Herbert said that he believed the law had been rightly interpreted by the magistrates. The circumstances under which it happened were very peculiar.

There was glanders among the horses of the 11th Hussars, and as such the barracks were emptied. This left the soldier Thompson without a bed, which is why he was billeted. The occurrence was not likely to be repeated; but he had taken measures to prevent its recurrence.

The result was a “Circular Memorandum addressed to the army at home and abroad:

Horse Guards, S.W, 19th July, 1860 (Miscellaneous), General number 52.

His Royal Highness the General Commanding-in-Chief desires when regiments or detachments leave barracks which are not to be re-occupied that the sick soldiers who are unable to accompany their corps may not be sent into billets but that a suitable lodging be hired for their accommodation.

His Royal Highness Commander-in-Chief was the Duke of Cambridge, Prince George, a grandson of George III and cousin of Queen Victoria. The reason for the regiments ‘peremptory’ order to leave is intriguing.

The Nottinghamshire Guardian reported that nine horses in the barracks had been shot just before the regiment left.

They had glanders. Glanders is a zoonotic disease that occurs primarily in horses, mules, and donkeys. It can be passed to dogs, cats, pigs, goats, and humans. It is not impossible that Thompson was infected with glanders. The people who are most susceptible are those who live or work in close proximity to horses. It is difficult to envisage a closer relationship than living above a stables.

There are various symptoms of the disease in humans, which include pulmonary infection leading to pneumonia, and Thompson died of a “lung affliction.”The conduct of Charles Bramwell M.D. was openly criticised at the trial and in the press.

As the barrack’s doctor he would have known the General Hospital’s policy concerning soldiers. It was also contended that he had misled the billet officer about the severity of Thompson’s condition. The officer testified that if he had known he would have placed the soldier in quiet private lodgings and not a rowdy public house. And finally, Dr Bramwell was a medical officer of Radford Union Workhouse and could have taken him there. The workhouse, which was on the south side of Hartley Road, had a separate hospital building. In 1856 the doctor had been re-appointed to this post by the Board of Guardians.

He was voted in by a majority of one, not exactly a ringing endorsement. Bramwell resigned from the Radford Union in 1863.

He seems to have been financially well off as, in the same year, he moved into the newly built 64 Terrace Royal.

Number 64 is the end building, on the corner of Goldsmith Street and Clarendon Street. The terrace is of eight Gothic Revival townhouses designed by architects Arthur Wilson and Samuel Dutton Walker. The Grade II listed buildings are noted for their numerous naturalistic carvings, especially around the entrances; no two of which are alike. In 1871, Dr Bramwell was still living there with his wife and four children. They had four servants, one of whom was a coachman. Coincidentally the house overlooks the bottom of the General Cemetery, where Robert Thompson is buried.

Perhaps, as the wit once said, the doctor wanted to keep an eye on his patients!

Keith Fisher