Guest blog post from Dr Kevin Linch, University of Leeds
“Dear Wife and Child,
This comes with my kind love to you hoping that these lines will find you in good health …”
So starts a letter from William Birchall, a soldier, to his wife Sarah written in 1798 during the war against Revolutionary France. William was stationed in Porchester, Hampshire, and about to embark to Ireland where a rebellion had broken out. In stark contrast to Wellington’s view of the common soldier in this period as the ‘scum of the earth’, this letter demonstrates a concern with family and their home that suggests otherwise. William finishes his letter with ‘I am your Loving and affectionate Husband’
In his letter, William refers to his recent marriage, yet they already had a child. However, this was quite usual and not because soldiers were dishonest: a contemporary dictionary describes several terms for unofficial marriages in the military, so although William’s child may have been born out of wedlock in the eyes of the Church, it wasn’t so to his fellow soldiers. It is also clear that William’s regiment, the Royal Lancashire Fencibles, had many other women travelling with them, as he describes how they are suffering because prices were high and they couldn’t get work. Although William and Sarah are separated he thinks this is for the best for now.
Perhaps the most interesting parts of William’s letter describe his hopes for their future. We don’t know where William came from (just because his regiment was titled the Royal Lancashire does not mean he was from Lancashire), but he hoped that once the ‘cursed war’ was over he will would rejoin his family and settle down in the ‘finest County in the world for traid and Mony’. This county provided a comforting image of home and of better times.
This letter, preserved at Hampshire County Record Office, shows how common soldiers were not all illiterate, and took the time to write back to loved ones. The sad thing is that the letter was addressed to Sarah at the ‘Rose and Crown, Brockenhurst near Lyndhurst, Hants’, and as it has made its way to a public archive one can’t help wondering if Sarah received it.
You can view the original letter and other material about soldiers in this period at the Redcoats digital repository.
You can find out more about soldiers in the period 1750-1815 by attending the Britain’s Soldiers conference at the University of Leeds.
Search Ancestry.co.uk’s Waterloo Medal Roll, 1815 for your ancestors.
Kelly Godfrey is Senior Manager, Digital Marketing for Ancestry.co.uk. Based in Ancestry's London office in Hammersmith, Kelly regularly tweets and posts on Ancestry's Facebook page as well as here on the blog.