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My great-great-great-great-grandfather William Viney was born in Tiverton in
Devon on 31 Jan 1778. His parents were Henry Viney and Hannah Perkins; they
also came from Tiverton, and were married there in 1759. The only available
evidence about his background is that he described himself to the Army as a
wool-comber. We know from his Army discharge certificate that he was 5ft
7½in tall with grey eyes and brown hair.
William joined the 1st Battalion of the 11th Regiment of Foot (the “North
Devonshires”) in Tiverton on 30 April 1796, aged 18. His pay as a private
soldier was the standard 1 shilling per day. He would serve in the 11th
Regiment for the next 21 years.
The early years of the war – the Ostend Raid, West Indies and Madeira
In May 1797 William’s battalion was part of a large force sent to immobilize the
lock at Saas, on the canal from Ostend to Bruges. The operation began with a
landing at Ostend. When the force reached the Ostend coast a gale blew up and
they had to remain at anchor. After five days they made a difficult landing, and
some of the planned demolition was achieved.
However, by the time the force had assembled on the beach to re-embark, the
wind had increased to the point where embarkation was impossible. As they
waited for the wind to drop, a large French force arrived. The British were
trapped and outnumbered, and after a short battle the whole force was taken
prisoner. The 11th were interned in miserable conditions in a prison camp near
Douai, and remained there for over a year. William was among the last to
return in July 1799.
The Battalion had barely six months in England before they were sent to join the
British garrison in the West Indies. They sailed in February 1800, and after a
miserable journey lasting several weeks in cramped and leaky vessels with
dreadful rations, they arrived in Martinique. They had little or no fighting to do,
and their main enemies were the heat and disease.
William was promoted to corporal in January 1801, his pay increasing to 1s.
2¼d. per day; and in November 1801 he was promoted sergeant, his pay then
rising to 1s. 6¾d. per day. From this pay was deducted 6d. per day for rations,
as was also the case for private soldiers.
The Battalion spent the next six years variously in Martinique, Dominica and St
Kitts. In July 1806 they set sail back to Britain, “worn down by the climate and
unfit for service” according to their final inspection.
Back in England, the Battalion settled in Tiverton and then Plymouth. In October
1807 Napoleon declared war on Portugal, and Britain exercised its right under
an old agreement to take over Madeira in order to safeguard the sea routes.
William’s battalion was sent there as part of the occupying force. Again there
was no fighting to be done, and they remained there for 18 months.
William’s daughter Caroline was born in Madeira in 1808. There is no record of
his marriage. It may have taken place in Madeira, or in Devon during the year or
so before the posting, in which case his wife must have been among the select
group allowed to travel with their husbands. When the Battalion sailed to
Portugal in 1809 the families were presumably returned to England. They
would not meet again for six years.
In June 1809 the order came for the 1st Battalion to embark from Madeira to
Portugal to join the army there under the Duke of Wellington (who was then still
Sir Arthur Wellesley). Wellington had been sent to drive the French out of Spain
and Portugal. He had several initial victories, and had pursued the French out of
Portugal into Spain, but he realised that he had overstretched his supply lines
and withdrew his Army into Portugal to the area around Badajoz, where the 1st
Battalion joined them, initially as part of 4 Division and later assigned to 6
Division. The Army then marched around 300 miles north to Almeida, where
they spent the winter. (There is a map of the area at the end of this account.)
There now began a period of nearly 3 years in which the Battalion marched with
Wellington for thousands of miles and were present when several important
battles (Busaco, Sabugal, Fuentes d’Onoro, Almeida, Ciudad Rodrigo and
Badajoz) were fought, but they were never truly involved in the fighting, always
being either held in reserve or positioned too far from the action. At one stage 6
Division acquired the nickname “The Marching Division” as they moved
repeatedly up and down the border between Spain and Portugal.
In August 1811 William was promoted to Quartermaster Sergeant. This meant
that he was the second most senior non-commissioned officer in the Battalion,
junior only to the Battalion Sergeant Major, and responsible for supply and
accommodation arrangements. His pay increased to 2s.6d. per day. He reverted
to the rank of Sergeant on 10 March 1812; the regimental pay book does not
record the reason for his demotion.
In June 1812 the French finally withdrew from the Portuguese border moving
into Spain towards Salamanca, with Wellington in pursuit. The 11th were
involved in the fighting to take the city, and then on 22 July the British and
French armies fought a major battle a few miles north; this battle of Salamanca
is regarded as one of Wellington’s masterpieces.
The fighting lasted from early morning throughout the day. Wellington made
steady gains, but suffered some losses and by late afternoon had not made the
decisive break-through, and the battle hung in the balance. 6 Division had been
held in reserve through the day, but were called forward to lead the final
assault. A period of fierce fighting culminated in an attack uphill to drive the
French of their hilltop position. The British suffered terrible losses advancing
into French fire, but they succeeded in taking the hill and the French were
routed. The 11th were in the thick of the fighting. They lost 341 killed and
wounded, a total exceeded by only one other regiment. As a result of their
courage and their losses the Regiment became known as “The Bloody Eleventh”.
The regimental return 3 days later shows only 214 men fit but 670 sick. The
11th won its first battle honours of the Napoleonic War at Salamanca.
After an unsuccessful siege at Burgos in September the army retreated to
Ciudad Rodrigo on the Portuguese border, where they over-wintered. The
retreat was chaotic, with inadequate supplies, often no food or shelter,
substantial losses through desertion, and a good deal of looting by the starving
In the Spring of 1813, intent upon finally driving the French out of Spain,
Wellington set off on a long march north and then east. The first battle was
Wellington’s great victory at Vittoria on 21 June, and here the 11th were kept in
the rear and did not take an active part in the battle. But thereafter as the
French were driven over the Pyrenees and back into France, the 11th were
involved in a series of battles in 1813 and1814 – Sorauren, Nive, Nivelle, Orthes
and Toulouse – often in the thick of the fighting and with substantial losses.
They were awarded battle honours for all these five encounters.
On 11 August 1813, after the battle of Sorauren, William was again promoted to
Quartermaster Sergeant, and awarded the title of Colour Sergeant which had
just been introduced to distinguish long-serving sergeants. He held this rank for
the rest of his service.
After Toulouse, the news arrived that Napoleon had surrendered and abdicated.
The six years of warfare in Spain had undoubtedly been a brutal experience for
the soldiers: the fighting was fierce, the field medical treatment primitive, the
marches were often very long, and general conditions were at times very poor,
with inadequate food and shelter, and often worn-out clothing, in weather that
varied from extremely hot summers to freezing winters.
In June 1814 the Battalion sailed to Ireland. Between then and February 1816
they were based in Athlone, Cashel and Dublin. William was presumably
reunited there with his wife and daughter. His son Henry Valentine said he was
born in Dublin in 1815; according to the pay books William was based there
between June and September.
In February 1816 the Regiment sailed to Gibraltar. During that year, the
soldiers were paid the prize money due to them for the Peninsular battles in
which they had fought. William received about £10, equivalent to about a
In June 1817 William was discharged from the Army. The grounds for his
discharge were given as “Being worn out”. He was only 39, but after the
hardships of the Peninsular campaign this condition is not surprising.
William’s regiment, the Devonshires, subsequently fought in the Boer War and
had distinguished roles in the two World Wars. It was amalgamated with the
Dorset Regiment in 1958; the Devonshire and Dorset Regiment became part of
The Rifles in 2007.
After leaving the Army, William lived in London. The Land Tax records of 1820
and 1821 show him living in Leonard St, Shoreditch, near where Old Street
station in located today. In his Will he described himself as a whitesmith
(someone who worked in tin and pewter); other records describe him as a
labourer, smith or engineer, suggesting that he had a varied career.
On 7 May 1820 he married Elizabeth Ann Nowell in the church of St Dionis
Blackchurch (which was near Fenchurch St in the City of London). He described
himself as a widower; his first wife, the mother of Caroline and Henry, had
clearly died at some time between the 1815 and 1820. William and Elizabeth
had a daughter, Hannah, the following year; but Hannah died in 1825 aged 4. By
then the Vineys were living at 23 Mark St, round the corner from Leonard St,
where they would remain for the rest of William’s life.
In 1831 William’s daughter Caroline married John Denham at the church of St
John Baptist in Hoxton. In 1837, his son Henry Valentine Viney married Jane
Budd in Plumstead.
An insurance record of 1832 shows William Viney and John Denham jointly
insuring numbers 7 and 8 Chapel St in Hackney, the former being John’s home,
as well as 23 Mark St. William’s Will shows that when he died he owned the
leasehold of houses at numbers 5 and 8 Chapel St, the latter being later occupied
by his grandson William John Denham, and another in Nova Scotia Gardens.
William died of a lung complaint on 15 July 1844. He was buried at St Leonard’s
church in Shoreditch four days later. The only specific asset he bequeathed was
“my silver wand which I have had in my possession thirty four years”; the date
suggests that this was likely to have been his sergeant-major’s baton, which
would probably have had a silver top, even though the word “wand” is an
unusual term for that. He left it, intriguingly, to his daughter Caroline rather
than his son Henry; he also left his best hat to Caroline’s husband John Denham,
specifically excluding it from the apparel left to Henry.
After William’s death, Elizabeth went to live in Chapel St with John and Caroline,
remaining there even after Caroline’s death in 1854. She died in 1862 at the
house of her stepson Henry Viney.
The 11th Regiment of Foot was awarded battle honours for the
Pyrenees (Sorauren) 1813
In the Name of God Amen. I William Viney of No. 23 Mark Street, Paul Street in
the Parish of Saint Leonards Shoreditch in the County of Middlesex Whitesmith
being of sound and disposing mind and memory do make and declare this to be
my last will and testament in manner following that is to say
I order all my just debts funeral expenses and charges of proving this my will be
in the first place fully paid and satisfied and after payment thereof and of every
part thereof I give and bequeath to my dear wife Elizabeth Ann Viney all my
household goods chattels plate book debts ready money and other Effects
whatsoever and wheresoever & for and during my said wife’s natural life I give
and bequeath to her & for her said sole use and benefit my two leasehold houses
with gardens &c thereto attached situate and being No. 5 Chapel Street Hackney
Road in the Parish of Bethnal Green in the County of Middlesex and now in the
occupation of Mr Salmon and No. 8 Chapel Street Hackney Road aforesaid now
in the occupation of Mr Watts and also a small house & garden situate and being
No 2 Nova Scotia Gardens Crabb Tree Row in the aforesaid Parish and County
now in the occupation of Mr Brazier and from and after the decease of my wife Elizabeth Ann Viney
I give and bequeath to my son Henry Valentine Viney my leasehold house garden and
premises thereto belonging situate and being No. 5 Chapel Street in Hackney
Road aforesaid and also to my said son Henry Valentine all my wearing apparel
(except my best hat which I bequeath to my son in law John Denham) and also
to my said son Henry Valentine I bequeath the whole of my working tools & give
and bequeath after the death of my dear wife to my daughter Caroline Denham
formerly Caroline Viney the house garden & premises thereto belonging being
No. 8 Chapel Street Hackney Road aforesaid now in the occupation of Mr Watts
and also my silver wand which I have had in my possession thirty four years
and I give and bequeath to my son Henry Valentine and my daughter Caroline
Denham jointly my house and premises situate and being No 2 Nova Scotia
Gardens aforesaid which after the decease of my wife shall be sold either by
public or private sale and the produce of such sale shall be equally divided
between my aforesaid son and daughter Henry Valentine and Caroline share &
share alike and I do hereby nominate constitute and appoint my dear wife Elizabeth Ann
Viney aforesaid my Executrix jointly with Mr John Budd of No 88 Great Leonard
St in the Parish of Saint Leonards Shoreditch Executor of this my will hereby
revoking and making void all former and other wills by me at any time
theretofore made and declare this only to be my will and testament. In witness
whereof I the said testator have to this my last will and testament set my hand
and seal this eighth day of November in the year of our Lord one thousand eight
hundred and forty three. William Viney