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West bromwich veteran of Victorian times who enlisted at the age of 14

By dan shaw  |  Posted: September 27, 2012

West Bromwich veteran Sergeant John Malcolm Carter (1835-1914)

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Many Bugle readers have researched their family trees, uncovering hitherto unknown stories about their remarkable ancestors. Raymond Durnall of Cradley Heath grew up with the often told family tale that one of his ancestors had guarded Emperor Napoleon during his exile on the South Atlantic island of St Helena. When he recently retired, Raymond and his wife Jan set about investigating his family history to discover if it was true. In doing so they uncovered another story about a remarkable West Bromwich soldier who served Queen and Country for nearly half a century.

Raymond’s great-greatgrandfather was John Malcolm Carter, a career soldier who was born into the army in 1835. He was born at sea, aboard the troopship that was taking his father out to serve in India. Naturally, he followed his father as he was posted to British possessions around the world and when he was 14, and living on the island of St Helena, he joined the army himself.

Raymond is descended from J.M. Carter’s daughter Susan, who was born in 1865.

J.M Carter eventually settled in West Bromwich and when the old solider died just a few months before the outbreak of the First World War, the veteran was buried with full military honours. Raymond has found the report on his ancestor’s death that was printed in the Midland Chronicle on Friday, 6th February, 1914, under the headline “Veteran’s Death at West Bromwich”. The report was as follows:

“The death occurred on Sunday, after a long and painful illness, at his residence at Griffin Street, West Bromwich, at the age of 78 years, of Ex- Sergeant John Malcolm Carter, a distinguished local veteran and a member of the West Bromwich National Reserve, who had a most interesting military career. The deceased gentleman, who was once a prominent figure in the military life of the town, has for some time been quite an invalid and had had to be wheeled about in a bath chair. But he had put in a total of 47 years’ and ten months’ service in the military forces of the country to his credit. He was born in the Army in 1835 and enlisted in the 1st Helena Regiment of Foot on May 20th, 1850, at the age of 14 years and six months. He was promoted corporal on the 21st of February, 1855; coloursergeant, 22nd May, 1858; and sergeant, 1st of December, 1866, being discharged for disability on the 19th of September, 1861, after serving 11 years and four months. He was awarded a pension of 10d a day, which was subsequently increased to 2s a day. He was not long out of billet, for on the 14th of November, 1861, he enrolled in the 30th Middlesex Rifle Volunteers, and served as sergeant-instructor until he was discharged on the 14th of December, 1865, after a service of four years and one month. Two months afterwards, on February 11th, 1866, he enrolled in the 3rd Administrative Battalion Staffordshire Rifle Volunteers, which was associated with the Old Twentieth, and served as sergeantinstructor for 25 years and two months, being discharged under the age clause on the 30th of April, 1891. He subsequently served as a pensioner recruiter in the Lichfield and Birmingham districts until 31st July, 1898, a period of seven years and three months. Ex-Sergeant Carter was at St Helena at the time of the Crimean War, and he joined the Old Twentieth Staffordshire Regiment at the time the Hon A.C. Legge, the great uncle of the present Earl of Dartmouth, was colonel. On the 3rd of March, 1869, Sergeant Carter was presented with a silver watch and a purse of gold by the officers and members of the 20th South Staffordshire Regiment as a mark of respect. He was also presented with the War Officer volunteer long service medal. It is interesting to note that forty-six years last June the Earl of Dartmouth was in camp in Sandwell Park when Mr Carter was the sergeantinstructor, and his lordship was then an ensign with the Patshull Company. When Earl Dartmouth handed him the National Service badge on Saturday Sergeant Carter reminded him of this incident, which gave his lordship considerable pleasure. It might be mentioned that the father of Mrs Carter was one of the Emperor Napoleon’s bodyguard at St Helena, he being associated with the 66th Berkshire Regiment.”

The same newspaper also gave notice of the funeral arrangements: “Arrangements for the funeral. West Bromwich and District Reserve orders. The funeral of the late Sergtinstructor J.M. Carter will take place on Saturday, 7th February, with military honours. Starting from Griffin Street at 3pm. All members of the National Reserve wishing to take part will fall in at the Drill Hall, Carters Green, at 2.15pm. Decorations and badges to be worn on the outside of the coat.

“(Signed) W. Hall Keys, Captain, Commanding West Bromwich and District National Reserve.”

The paper also printed a letter from William Heneage Legge, 6th Earl of Dartmouth: “Dear Captain Keys, I am indeed sorry to hear of Sergeant Carter’s death – another link with the past gone – I thought when I last saw him that he was much more feeble than I liked to see. Would you kindly convey to the members of the family, from whom I have also heard, my deep sympathy with them in their bereavement, a sympathy all the more sincere as I always held Sergeant Carter in the highest esteem, and it has always been a pleasure to me to feel that the acquaintance commenced so many years ago in the old Volunteer days soon ripened into a friendship which continued to the end. Yours, truly, Dartmouth, Patshull House, Wolverhampton.”

Sergeant Carter’s funeral was reported in the Midland Chronicle a week later: “The funeral of the late ex- Sergt.-Instructor Carter took place on Saturday afternoon, in miserable weather and amidst every manifestation of sorrow and respect. In Griffin Street, where the deceased gentleman resided, blinds were drawn in nearly all the houses as a mark of esteem, and full military honours were paid to the late veteran. The coffin was of plain oak with brass mountings, and this was borne on a gun carriage. Over the coffin lay the Union Jack and many floral tributes. Members of the Territorials and National Reserves, of which the deceased was a member, followed the coffin to the West Bromwich Cemetery, where the remains were laid to rest and there was the usual firing over the grave after the interment. Messrs. Webb undertook the funeral arrangements.”

Raymond has found the grave of John Malcolm Carter in All Saints churchyard; it was fortunate to survive as many other gravestones from that period have been laid flat or are lost amid the undergrowth. As luck would have it, the grave is near a wall and a recent burial had meant that much of the grass and plants covering it had been cut back so that Raymond was able to take a picture of the tombstone.

John Malcolm Carter was buried with his wife Ann Bertha, who died in 1913. It is she that provides the link to Napoleon. Born on St Helena, it was her father who was one of the troops that guarded the emperor.

Following his defeat at Waterloo on 18th June, 1815, Napoleon surrendered himself to Captain Frederick Maitland of HMS Bellerophon on 15th July, 1815, at the French port of Rochefort. The emperor was taken by sea to Torbay but the British government refused to allow him to set foot on British soil as there was much popular support for the fallen emperor in Britain and the authorities feared he would become a figurehead for dissent. Napoleon wished to settle in England, to a quiet country estate, but instead he was dispatched to St Helena, a small volcanic island around 1,200 miles from the coast of Africa. Napoleon lived on the island, first at the Briars Estate and later at Longwood House, in increasing ill health, amid damp and unhealthy conditions, guarded by around 1,500 troops and a naval squadron.

Napoleon died of stomach cancer on 5th May, 1821, aged 51. He was initially buried on the island, under a blank tombstone because no one could agree on the wording, but in 1840 his remains were returned to France and given a state funeral. Once his tomb was completed in 1861, his remains were interned in the crypt under the dome at Les Invalides, Paris.

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