Your Military History: Like Father Like Son

3 mins read
José Casado del Alisal’s painting of the Battle of Balien, a conflict during the Peninsular War in which John Rowland fought.

In 1809, a 5ft 5in tall, brown-haired Irishman called John Rowland enlisted in the 95th Regiment of Foot, already by then a sharpshooting Rifle Regiment, distinguished from the mass of line regiments by their Baker Rifles. At 33 years old, John was no youngster, and it would seem that he had seen military service with the British Crown before. Like many of his countrymen, John, who hailed from St Ann’s Dublin, had made his life one of service in the British Army.

John was a shoemaker, a job indispensible to any foot regiment, where men would be marching for days at a time, covering hundreds of miles on campaign.

In March 1810, by which time John was a private in the 3rd Battalion of the 95th Foot – and presumably while training in the light infantry barracks at Shornecliffe outside Folkestone – John met and married Mary Witten at the Parish Church of St Peter and St Paul at nearby Saltwood. Their son Richard Rowland was born in Saltwood that same year.

Peninsular War

By 1810, Wellington had re-entered Portugal to confront the French armies in the Peninsula, and that ultimately is where John was headed. We know that he was with Wellington’s army as it marched into southern France in early 1814, and that he was at the Battle of Toulouse, because he was awarded the Peninsular War Medal with Toulouse clasp. It seems likely that, with his shoemaking skills in high demand, he was probably not automatically in the front ranks when it came to action.

John stayed with the regiment in France, and on 18 June 1815 took his place with the 2nd Battalion of the 95th at Waterloo, where he suffered a ‘gunshot wound’ to the left wrist. This may have occurred during that late afternoon action when the 95th, together with the 71st and 52nd Line Regiments, swung forward to enfilade the right of the French Imperial Guards’ advance. Or perhaps it was after that, as he and his comrades pursued the broken French. In any case, a shoemaker with an injured wrist had a limited army career ahead of him, and in February 1816 John was pensioned off.

However, as one Irishman left the army and the 95th was reconstituted as the Rifle Brigade, another – also called John – was joining. In November 1816, John Lander, a 21-year-old 5ft 8in tall shoemaker from Limerick, joined the Rifle Brigade at Dublin for the £5 bounty given to new recruits.

His path was to cross with John Rowland’s in 1838, when his daughter Susannah married Richard Rowland. By then Richard – a shoemaker like his father – had joined his father’s old regiment, albeit under its new name of the Rifle Brigade. As a shoemaker and a private, Richard no doubt knew John Lander, who was a shoemaking sergeant; the latter may even have been the former’s superior. Susannah Lander was John Lander’s daughter.

The mystery of the marriages 

However Richard and Susannah came to know each other, on 17 March 1838 they married in the Parish Church of St Mary Newington in Surrey.  Richard did not reveal that he was a soldier. He appears on the marriage certificate as simply ‘shoemaker’.

We meet Richard and Susannah again on 21 June 1838, marrying for a second time, at Woolwich, presumably where his regiment was now stationed. This time he states that he is a private in the Rifle Brigade.

Why two marriages? Was it that Private Rowland had married without his commanding officer’s permission, in secret, out of the area. Or was there more to it? Perhaps Sergeant Lander was determined that his daughter should not marry a humble private, especially one he knew! Whatever the reason, Richard and Susannah married twice.

Richard and Susannah stayed with the regiment, moving overseas with it. A son was born in Corfu in the Ionian Islands in 1843, then a daughter, Mary, in King William’s Town in Kaffraria in southern Africa in 1848, and then a second daughter, Susannah, also in King William’s Town, in 1852.

A colonial family

Mary was baptised in 1848 as the daughter of Richard, a private in the Rifle Brigade, by a Wesleyan missionary in a temporary chapel. In 1852, Susannah was baptised by the Military Chaplain, though strangely hers is the only non-military baptism on the page, leading us to believe that by then Richard had left the army and settled down to life as a shoemaker in the new capital of British Kaffraria.

The most likely explanation for their presence in southern Africa would seem to be that Richard and the Rifle Brigade were taking part in one of the ongoing series of wars with the indigenous tribespeople that we know as ‘the Kaffir Wars’, perhaps the Second Kaffir War of 1847.

A son followed in South Africa in 1855, but clearly shoemaking in King William’s Town did not work out for Richard and Susannah, and by 1860 they were back in Britain, in Chichester, where Richard carried on his trade. British Kaffraria, meanwhile, had only a limited existence before being swallowed up by the Cape of Good Hope Colony and ultimately by the Union of South Africa.

Susannah was my wife’s great-great-grandmother, and finding her opened one of the most interesting chapters in our family history as we delved back to and beyond the Battle of Waterloo.

1 Comment

  1. Richard might have met my g-g-grandparents as my g-g-grandfather was serving with the Cape Mounted Rifles in KWT and Grahamtown from 1852 to 1864, marrying my g-g-grandmother in KWT in 1860. She was a Kennaway girl, a boatload of Irish girls brought out to East London in 1857 as potential servants and wives for the German legion.

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