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My ancestor was a St Helena soldier

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: January 29, 2014

By Ray Durnall

  • Ray's ancestor, Matthew Carter

  • Map of the South Atlantic showing the position of St Helena, where Matthew Carter was stationed

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THE Bugle has published articles concerning my grandfather Jeremiah Durnall and my great-great-grandfather John Malcolm Carter (see Bugles 1048, 1074, 1077 and 1097).

The research that I undertook for these articles was prompted by various photographs which had been retained by members of my family, the identity of the participants in the photographs having long since been forgotten.

Such it was with a photograph of a Victorian soldier which had been mounted in a mirror, and given as a wedding present by my grandmother Edith Durnall (née Cook) to one of my uncles in the 1940s.

The story was that, originally, a portrait existed of this soldier and it was sent for cleaning prior to its being given as a gift. However, on its return the portrait was damaged by over-cleaning and it was decided to photograph the portrait and use this in a mirror. The photo appears to have been hand tinted, a common practice of the day.

Another contributor to the Bugle, Derek Benbow used his knowledge of many years collecting military badges to help me best ascertain the uniform and thus identity of the soldier who I believe to be my great-great-great-grandfather Matthew Carter.

Matthew was born in 1805 in Stanwell, Middlesex, a village that is now in danger of being swallowed by further expansion of Heathrow Airport. He enlisted in the 90th Foot Regiment on 13th April, 1826. This was a Scottish regiment and the uniform in the photo, while poorly defined, indicates this during its Indian service. The regiment served in the Ionian islands at the time Mathew joined and later in Sri Lanka.

I found details of his marriage to Martha Martin at Gosport in 1831, confirming the marriage date in his military record. At that time six men in 100 were allowed to have their wives accompany them overseas.

The 90th were serving in Ireland in 1835 when they were ordered to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Mathew embarked aboard the Sir Charles Malcolm, an Indian Navy merchant ship built of teak by the same shipyard that built HMS Trincomalee, the oldest wooden British warship still afloat, nowadays berthed in the historic dock at Hartlepool.

The ship carried four companies, probably 100 men in each, plus the headquarters staff, maybe another 20, in addition to officers' wives and enlisted men's wives, plus its English crew and possibly the Indian crew as well, which had sailed the ship to England and although not being allowed to sail it back were guaranteed their passage home, so there were maybe 500 souls onboard.

The ship was leaking enough for it to need repairing at Plymouth before its five month voyage to Ceylon, during which time John Malcolm Carter was born. He was given the name Malcolm, I assume, in respect of the ship. The ship was later sold and renamed Adventure, and was used to carry Irish and German folk emigrating to America.

Matthew transferred to the 61st Foot on 1st September, 1837, while in Ceylon and this regiment boarded HMS Jupiter for the return to England in October 1839. In addition to officers and their wives, it carried 399 men, 29 women and 76 children of the regiment.

Most sailing ships from those parts would have returned to England via St Helena. When the ship arrived back at Southampton it could not land due to high winds, and having beat offshore for two weeks it continued on to Cork, collected the remainder of the regiment and was towed to Cowes by HM Steam Frigate Cyclops, landing 14th March, 1840. The regiment then had their first train ride back to barracks.

The 1841 census records Mathew, John, Mathew junior. (born in Kandy) and a soldier's wife, Catherine, at Woolwich Barracks. Apart from the wedding details, I found no further mention of Martha, but both sons had daughters that they named Martha.

About this time it was decided by the British government that instead of garrison troops, some previously supplied by the Honourable East Indies Company, St Helena would have its own British army regiment. All volunteers, the men would have to be of good character to fit into island life and be physically fit as they were used as stevedores, (in 1845 about 1,500 ships called at St Helena).

Henry Simmonds, formerly a major of the 61st was appointed commanding officer with the rank Lieutenant Colonel on the 7th January, 1842. Mathew transferred to this regiment on the 1st February, 1842, being given the distinction of regimental number 1, and they arrived on St Helena in October that year. He completed his five year term and retired from the army in 1847 but in 1850 he was recalled to a parade and given a gratuity and a good conduct medal.

Both of his sons joined the regiment, John at 14 and Matthew junior was under 12. In the 1860s the regiment was disbanded and having been in existence for less than 25 years no official history was completed. A St Helena islander Dave Marr is attempting to correct this omission and I have supplied him with the military histories of the three men plus photos. The St Helena museum is placing the histories in a showcase containing a uniformed model of a soldier of the St Helena Regiment, which is being renamed "No. 1 Matthew Carter". There is a view of the soldier on a Youtube clip uploaded by the St Helena Tourist Board.

Both sons returned to England in the 1860s. Together with his two boys, John brought with him his wife Ann Bertha, who was born on the island in 1839. Her father, through his association with the 66th Regiment, had been one of Emperor Napoleon's guards during his incarceration and death on the island. Grenadiers of the 66th carried the emperor's coffin to his original grave; later his remains were exhumed and returned to France.

Mathew the father, according to parish records for births, had further children on St Helena with his wife Eliza Watson, two girls in 1856 and 1858. On both records his occupation was listed as prison officer at Rupert's Bay military and civilian gaol, which was burned down in one hour by a military prisoner in 1867.

His death record in 1881 states he was a pensioner and groom, the informant being Eliza. She may well have been a freed slave, as a family named Watson had belonged to a prominent family on the island named Meliss and an Eliza of about the correct age was among them.

From 1840 to 1872 St Helena played a pivotal role in Britain's efforts to suppress the slave trade. Over this period it received over 25,000 "liberated Africans" taken from slave ships by Royal Navy patrols. Many thousands did not survive, their last resting place being Rupert's Valley graveyard, the army and prisoners probably assisting in the burials.

A hospital at Rupert's helped in recuperation. In 2008 an archaeological excavation prior to an access road being built for the airport at Prosperous Bay Plain uncovered artefacts from this period which will shortly be on display at the Liverpool Museum of Slavery before being returned to the island. A Youtube slideshow documents some of the excavation.

After a short spell in London where his daughter and my ancestor Susan was born, John Malcolm and his family settled in West Bromwich.

Another local connection maybe that of John Martin, the father of Martha Martin, he is shown living in Gosport in the first half of the 1800s and was born in Eccleshall, Staffordshire, his occupation was Cordwainer or high class shoemaker.

Have you uncovered an interesting ancestor in your family history? Why not tell Bugle readers all about them? Contact dshaw@black countrybugle.co.uk or write to Bugle House, 41 High Street, Cradley Heath, B64 5HL.

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