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Private Cornelius Kerley, 54th and 87th Regiments of Foot - A Soldier of Dorset

by Jeremy Archer

The village of Pentridge, whose name comes from the Celtic and means 'hill of the wild boar', lies in an isolated spot on Cranborne Chase in the north-east corner of Dorset. The village can only be reached by a narrow, winding cul-de-sac, which runs south-east off the old Roman road between Blandford and Salisbury. It is an ancient landscape with seventeen scheduled ancient monuments lying within the parish: Bokerley Dyke, Ackling Dyke Roman, part of the Dorset Cursus (associated with the Neolithic cult of the dead), an Iron Age hill fort on Penbury Knoll, ancient field systems and a number of long and round barrows. In 1841 there were 52 houses in Pentridge, housing a total population of 244 people. In the intervening years the population has declined sharply and there are now just 29 houses in Pentridge, with a total of seven Grade II listed buildings.

On 25 September 1776 Cornelius, the son of John and Mary Kerley, was baptised in the parish church of St. Rumbold.[1] As far as we know, Cornelius Kerley left no written record of his life but a great deal can be pieced together from official records: his story - and the immense distances that he travelled from his Dorset home - is therefore the story of the great events that took place while he was serving with two different regiments over a period of almost twenty years. Described later as 'Five Feet eight & ½ Inches in height, Dark Brown Hair, Grey Eyes, Fair Complexion and by Trade a Labourer', he enlisted in the 54th (West Norfolk) Regiment of Foot on 18 December 1797, having been recruited by Lieutenant Charles Frederick at Rathkeale, a small market town near Limerick.[2] It was an entirely appropriate - but almost certainly completely accidental - choice of regiment.[3] The 54th Foot, having become desperately depleted during the campaign on St. Vincent in the Windward Islands, had arrived in Ireland on 18 March 1797 just 150 strong.

Having played a minor role in the suppression of the Irish Rebellion of 1798, fomented by Wolfe Tone and the Society of the United Irishmen, the 54th Foot sailed for England on 1 March 1800.[4] By 1 July 1800 the Regiment had completed the formation of two battalions and both sailed from Netley, near Southampton, to take part in that autumn's abortive expedition to raid the Spanish arsenals at Ferrol and Cadiz. After spending two uncomfortable and frustrating months in transports, there was suddenly the prospect of some real fighting. On 1 July 1798 Napoleon had landed in Egypt with 34,000 men, defeating Murad Bey's army in the Battle of the Pyramids outside Cairo three weeks later. However, disaster struck the French when, in an audacious stroke on 1 August, Nelson destroyed Napoleon warships anchored in Aboukir Bay (the transports had already sailed back to France). The vaunted Armée de l'Orient was now cut off in Egypt. A year later, after an abortive attempt to capture St. Jean d'Acre, news reached Napoleon that there was turmoil in France following a setback in Italy: he slipped past the Royal Navy blockade and left Egypt, never to return.[5] On 24 October 1800 both battalions of the 54th Foot sailed from Gibraltar to join the expedition, under the command of Lieutenant-General Sir Ralph Abercromby, to expel the French from Egypt. Private Cornelius Kerley was a member of Captain John Cairnes's Company of the 2nd Battalion, 54th Regiment of Foot.[6] On 8 March 1801 - after pleasant soujorns for resupply, exercise and training at Minorco, Malta and Rhodes - the British landed at Aboukir Bay.

As far as the 2/54th was concerned, the landing was inexpensive: it cost the Battalion just one man killed and one officer and ten men wounded. On 13 March, however, the Battalion suffered badly from artillery fire, to which it was unable to reply, during an abortive British advance. In all, twelve men were killed and six officers (including Captain Cairnes, whose company was hardest hit) and 37 men wounded. After an encouraging start, the day had ended in something of a stalemate, and the attack was abandoned. Eight days later the French sallied forth in strength, leading to a desperate encounter, during which Sir Ralph Abercromby was fatally wounded. During this series of engagements the two battalions of the 54th Foot had suffered casualties of eleven officers and 142 men.[7] The monthly Muster Books record that Private Cornelius Kerley was 'sick present' on both 24 March and 24 May, as were approximately 20% of the men of his Battalion. There was then an interlude during which new British Commander-in-Chief, Major-General John Hely Hutchinson, persuaded Général Belliard to surrender the garrison of 13,000 soldiers in Cairo on 29 June, on the promise of a safe passage to France.

Private Cornelius Kerley Private Cornelius Kerley In the meantime the 54th Foot was engaged in a holding operation in front of Alexandria, with the French not daring to test their resolve after the drubbing they had received on 21 March. In mid-August General Hutchinson - boosted by reinforcements from England - decided to outflank Alexandria and attack from the west. The 1/54th was to reduce Fort Marabout, 'a very strong regular fort', in a commanding position in the British rear. Under covering fire from the 54th's Light Company, two batteries of guns were hauled over the sand and, after three days of heavy shelling, Fort Marabout had fallen, enabling British ships to enter the Old Harbour. On 22 August the main assault force - which included the 2/54th - commenced five days of determined advance on the city's defences, before the French asked for terms on 26 August.[8] It had been a hard campaign and, in addition to the battle casualties, 'dreadful fevers and dysentery had been terribly rife, while ophthalmia had left several hundreds completely blind besides affecting the sight of others.'[9] Looking through the Pay Lists, it is interesting to note that, while the lieutenant-colonel was paid 15s 11d per day, a private soldier received just 15s 6d per month.[10]

On 6 July 1802 all regiments that took part in the campaign were awarded the distinction of 'Egypt' with the Sphinx above 'as a distinguished mark of His Majesty's royal approbation'. In January 1842, by way of compensation for the withdrawal - for the inevitable cost reasons - of the second of the two guns captured at Fort Marabout, which had hitherto been allowed to accompany the 54th Foot on its various postings, the Regiment was awarded the unique battle honour 'Marabout'.[11] After the Egyptian expedition both battalions returned to Gibraltar on 15 March 1802, with Cornelius Kerley switching between two transports, the Fydes and the Osborn. The Peace of Amiens, which was signed on 27 March 1802, led to premature optimism about the prospects for long-term prospects for a lasting peace in Europe and the resulting disbandment of the 2nd Battalion, 54th Foot just three months later. In any event many of the soldiers were Militia men who had extended their service for the prospect of some fighting.

That December the 54th Foot helped to suppress a mutiny on Gibraltar, prompted by the harsh disciplinary measures of the new Governor and Commander-in-Chief, the Duke of Kent. On Christmas Eve the men of one battalion, having just received their pay (always the most vulnerable moment in army life), broke into their armoury, seized weapons and swarmed into the town. However, the 54th Foot remained steadfast under orders, disarmed the mutineers, arrested the ringleaders and restored order, as they were to do again two days later, when another battalion mutinied. In gratitude, the Duke of Kent, later the father of Queen Victoria, presented the 54th Foot with a fine silver punchbowl on which is recorded his 'high sense' of the Regiment's 'steady discipline and good conduct'. In late autumn 1804 'a malignant fever' struck Gibraltar and, according to a letter published in The Times, 'two-thirds of the inhabitants, it was supposed, had fallen, to the number of 3,000'. Although the garrison was less affected, there were 450 cases out of a total strength of 750 in the 54th Foot: over 100 died, including no less than seven officers. Just days after the battle of Trafalgar the bulk of the 54th Foot returned to England, being stationed at Colchester, before sailing for Jamaica in January 1807.

However, Cornelius Kerley's experiences were very different. On 14 December 1805 a transport carrying three officers and 132 men of the 54th Foot - including Cornelius Kerley - was intercepted off Brest by a French squadron under Admiral Willaumez, flying his flag in the Foudroyant. Three days later the same squadron captured three companies of the Queen's Regiment on another transport returning home from Gibraltar and all the prisoners were transferred to the 1,084-ton, 40-gun frigate Volontaire, under the command of Captain Bretel. On 4 March 1806 the Volontaire sailed into Table Bay, the rendezvous agreed with Amiral Willaumez. Duped by the fact that the forts still flew the Dutch flag, although the British had taken possession on 12 January that year, the Volontaire found itself threatened by three 64-gun British ships, HMS Diadem, HMS Raisonable and HMS Belliqeux - and promptly struck its colours. Although a dozen of the prisoners of the 54th Foot had since died, the rest were released from beneath the hatches, where they had been held since their capture. However, they were soon launched upon another adventure.

Having heard from the master of an American merchantman that the inhabitants of the cities of the Rio de la Plata were 'so ridden by their government' that they would willingly join the British, Commodore Sir Home Popham took it upon himself to organise an expedition. On 14 April 1806 Popham's entire squadron of nine warships, together with a small invasion force under Major-General William Carr Beresford (later 1st Viscount Beresford), sailed from Cape Town. Buenos Aires, even then a substantial city, with a population of over 70,000, surrendered on 2 July. According to Fortescue in his History of the British Army: 'Sir Home Popham, for his part, took the extraordinary step of sending a circular round the leading merchants of London, reporting that he had opened a gigantic market for their goods and inviting them to take advantage of it.' In response to Beresford's urgent appeal for reinforcements, two battalions, including all the members of the 54th Foot still fit for duty - two officers and 110 men, Cornelius Kerley among them - found a safe anchorage on the south side of the Rio de la Plata, within striking distance of Montevideo, on 4 October. Before they even arrived, however, things had already begun to go badly awry: Beresford and his men had been forced to surrender, after a three-day insurrection on 12 August, having suffered heavy casualties.

It wasn't until Brigadier-General Sir Samuel Auchmuty, with an additional 4,000 troops - together with numbers of merchants, speculators and opportunists - arrived in January 1807 that the British force was strong enough to invest and assault the city of Montevideo. The small party of the 54th Foot were assigned the role of the 'forlorn hope': while they had the honour of being the first through the 'practicable' breach in the city walls, there was little expectation that many would survive the ordeal. Storming through the breach three abreast in the early hours of 3 February, the 54th's 'forlorn hope' played a full part in the capture of the city, which surrendered the same day. One participant later wrote: 'We drove the enemy from the batteries, and massacred with sword or bayonet all whom we found carrying arms - the general's orders had been not to plunder or enter any house, or injure any woman, child, or man not carrying arms. When we reached the gunwharf, we found some twenty or thirty negroes chained to the guns. We spared them and later found them useful for burying the dead.'[12] Four regiments - the 38th, 40th, 87th and 95th Foot - were awarded the battle honour 'Monte Video'. The British then made a crucial mistake by publishing a bilingual newspaper, La Estrella del Plata, in which they demanded that the colonists should agree to become part of the British Empire, which served only to alienate most of them. It did not help that the British also turned 14,000 inhabitants out of their houses.

By 1 April the 'forlorn hope' duties, coupled with frequent clashes with skilled native horsemen and the depredations of the climate, had reduced the strength of the 54th's detachment to just 87 and the decision was taken to draft the men to other units. Having served with the colours of the 54th Foot for 9 years and 182 days, Private Cornelius Kerley joined Captain John Evans's Company of the 1st Battalion, 87th Regiment of Foot (later the Royal Irish Fusiliers) on 18 May 1807, one of twenty-one members of the 54th Foot to do so. The 54th Foot Description Book simply states of Cornelius Kerley: 'Transferred to 87th Regt in South America.'

Commodore Sir Home Popham was recalled home to justify his actions to their Lords of the Admiralty and General John Whitelocke replaced him as Commander-in-Chief, arriving in the 28-gun frigate Thisbe on 10 May 1807. After the arrival of three more infantry battalions, commanded by Brigadier-General Robert Crauford, at Montevideo on 14 June, a force of almost 8,000 men was landed some fifty miles from Buenos Aires on 28 June 1807. At daylight on 5 July nine British battalions, divided into four brigades and no less than thirteen columns, began their advance into the city of Buenos Aires. The advance soon deteriorated into an uncoordinated shambles: many of the troops marched with fixed bayonets but no ammunition, while others were more intent on plunder than on fighting.[13] Sir Samuel Auchmuty's brigade, which comprised the 38th and 1/87th Foot (comprising 642 all ranks), was on the extreme left and witnessed some of the fiercest fighting of the day, as they headed for the Plaza de Toros in the north of the city. According to Lieutenant Colonel Torrens: '[Captain Whittingham, one of General Whitelocke's staff officers] reported Sir Samuel Achmuty's [sic] success, having taken 30 pieces of cannon, above 600 prisoners, the arsenal, containing stores and ammunition, and had opened a communication with Captain Thompson of the navy, who commanded the gun-boats.'[14] Sir Samuel Auchmuty, who accompanied the right column of the 87th Foot during the assault, said later: '...the left column of the regiment, which had suffered equally, if not more severely than the right; had behaved with equal gallantry...'[15]

Unfortunately that singular success, achieved by nine o'clock that morning, was a rarity on a day that was to see two British brigades routed and most of their men forced to surrender (including the detached Light Company of the 1/87th at the Convent of Santo Domingo). Having had over one-third of his force incapacitated, General Whitelocke decided to withdraw. Terms, including the release of the prisoners, were agreed two days later. That terrible day the 87th Foot lost no less than seven officers and 80 men killed and ten officers and 320 men wounded - and were reduced to just 225 effectives.[16] Of the officers, only Lieutenant-Colonel Butler and seven subalterns remained on their feet. The British troops withdrew from Buenos Aires on 12 July and on 2 August the survivors of the 1/87th Foot embarked at Montevideo to return to the Cape of Good Hope. There were no battle honours or medals for a defeated army, however gallantly they had fought.[17] Both Commodore Sir Home Popham and General John Whitelocke were court-martialled: the former was 'severely reprimanded' for 'quitting his station without orders' while the latter was 'cashiered, and declared totally unfit, and unworthy, to serve his Majesty in any Military Capacity whatever'.[18] The whole episode served to spur the colonists towards self-government: on 9 July 1816 the Congreso de Tucumán proclaimed the independence of the Provincias Unidas del Rio de la Plata, which became the Argentine Confederation in 1831 and the Argentine Republic in 1860.

The campaign in South America evidently had an adverse effect on the 1/87th Foot. When they were reviewed on 11 May 1808 the inspecting officer noted that courts-martial were 'very frequent' while 'there are many characters of the worst description in this Regiment, presumably drafted into the Corps on its leaving South America for this Colony'.[19] On 23 October 1810 the 1/87th Foot sailed from the Cape of Good Hope, part of an expeditionary force tasked with seizing control of Mauritius from the French. On 29 November the fleet anchored in Grande Bale, twelve miles north-east of Port Louis, and a strong naval brigade was landed. This force proved too strong for the disaffected French militia and the island surrendered on 2 December, without any input from the officers and men of the 87th Foot. The 1/87th Foot remained on garrison duties on Mauritius for almost five years and, although the fighting was over, the Casualty Returns show that an average of ten men per month died from disease.[20] While there wasn't a great deal to do, 'the men got plenty of musketry practice'.[21]

On 16 June 1815 the bulk of the Battalion sailed from Port Louis, arriving at Fort William (now Calcutta) in Bengal on 3 August. Not long after their arrival the Rajah of Nepal refused to ratify the treaty agreed by his ambassadors, and a punitive expedition was despatched, under the command of Major-General Sir David Ochterlony. On 9 February 1816 the soldiers began their march through the Sal forest: 'Objects of the strangest nature continually attracted attention. Magnificent trees, covered with fruit, of various unknown species; birds of rich plumage but most discordant notes; bands of monkeys, chattering as the troops marched under the huge trees, in which these denizens of the forest had remained undisturbed for ages, excited the surprise of the soldiers. Great difficulty was also experienced in carrying the guns through the forest, which was accomplished by the personal exertions of each individual.'[22] On 28 February the Light Company of the 1/87th Foot suffered ten killed and 34 wounded during heavy fighting on a ridge near Muckwanpore. The expedition was successful and a treaty was signed on 3 March 1816.

However, Private Cornelius Kerley took no part in this campaign: his military career was drawing to a close. According to the records, he sailed from 'Isle France' in March 1816 and, by 24 March, was 'on command at Calcutta', a member of Captain William Cavanagh's Company.[23] However, just a week later, Cornelius Kerley was 'in consequence of ophthalmia of long standing, contracted in Egypt on service, considered unfit for further Service Abroad, and is proposed to be Discharged and has been ordered to the Army Depôt in the Isle of Wight that his case might be finally determined, on having first received all just demands of Pay, Clothing &c from his entry into the said Regiment to the date of this Discharge as appears of the back hereof.' On 3 June 1816 Private Cornelius Kerley acknowledged that he 'had received all my Clothing, Pay, Arrears of Pay and all just Demands whatsoever from the time of my enlisting in the Regiment mentioned on the other side to the day of my Discharge.' It was noted that he had 'received his Coat, Cape, and Shoes, and Ten Shillings and Sixpence Sterling to complete his Clothing for the Year 1815'. Lieutenant-Colonel Francis Miller, his Commanding Officer, wrote: 'I hereby certify that the cause which has rendered it necessary to Discharge the within mentioned Private Corns Curley stated on the opposite side has not arisen from vice or misconduct and that he is not to my knowledge incapacitated by the sentence of a General Court Martial from receiving his Pension.' He spent the rest of that year 'invalided at Calcutta'.[24]

Some time after 25 March 1817 Private Cornelius Curley was 'invalided and sent to Europe'.[25] On 9 February 1817 it was officially confirmed by the Physician to the Forces that Cornelius Curley was 'unfit for further service' and the complicated discharge process was finally completed on 11 November 1817.[26] Private Cornelius Kerley was duly discharged to pension after a total of twenty years' service: 9 years and 6 months with the 54th Foot and 10 years and 6 months with the 87th Foot. In an astonishing odyssey, he had served in Ireland, at both ends of the Mediterranean, in South Africa and South America, on Mauritius and in India. Now he was free to return home to Dorset - to domesticity and a well-deserved pension. Cornelius Kerley was married, at St. Rumbold, Pentridge on 16 August 1818, to Mary Bright of the neighbouring hamlet of Woodgates. On 12 September 1819 their only daughter, Sarah, was baptised in the same church.[27] In both the 1841 and 1851 censuses of Dorset, Cornelius Kerley described himself as a 'Chelsea Pensioner'.

On 1 June 1847 Horse Guards issued a General Order, published in the London Gazette, inviting applications for the Military General Service 1793-1814. As an afterthought, the bar for Egypt, the most distant in date, was authorised in 1850, two years after the medals had first been issued. Since it was almost fifty years after the events that it commemorated, it is perhaps unsurprising that there were just 47 successful applications - 6 officers and 41 men - from those who had served in that memorable campaign with the 54th Foot.[28] Private Cornelius Kerley was one of them, having been able to demonstrate through the carefully-preserved Muster Lists that he took part in the campaign.[29] In the case of those who had died between application and dispatch, the medals were sent to the next-of-kin.

According to his death certificate, Cornelius Kerley died at Cranborne on 31 January 1855, having suffered from dropsy - or a swelling of the tissues due to the accumulation of excess water - for four months. His daughter, Sarah Sellwood, was 'present at the death'. On 4 February 1855 Cornelius Kerley was buried in the churchyard of St. Rumbold: the Reverend Duncan Campbell, Rector of Pentridge, officiated at the ceremony. There is no gravestone in the churchyard to Cornelius Kerley and, at this distance in time, it is quite possible that his medal is the only physical relic of a varied and unusual life.