Parish registers aren’t only useful for genealogists. Often, you’ll find surprising notes in the margins. A baby born in a barn, a certificate for the King’s Evil, someone killed when the bell fell out of the steeple and crushed them. It was a note in the margin of a burial register about a victim of arsenic poisoning, which sparked my book Poison Panic. But maybe it’s thanks to Sharpe, or perhaps Mr Wickham, that one of my favourite parish register discoveries has to be the hundreds of soldiers, their wives and babies, who appear in the small Essex village of Weeley during the Napoleonic War. What on earth were they doing there?
In 1803, when Napoleon’s sabre-rattling grew ever louder, it was felt that the north-east Essex coastline was dangerously undefended. Harwich, which had a Royal Navy presence, is just to the north of Weeley, and going west, there were docks and shipyards along the River Colne, and the garrison town of Colchester about 12 miles away. Martello towers were built along the coast, and several hundred soldiers were stationed in Weeley, ready in case the French ships appeared over the horizon.
The first soldiers’ babies appear in the register in July 1803, the vicar carefully recording the father’s regiment or militia beside each entry. That same month, Mary Ann Grant, wife of Captain James Grant of the 42nd Regiment (better known as the Black Watch) wrote a letter to a friend from Weeley Camp. She described Weeley as ‘an insignificant village; but the encampment is large.’ She and James had married only a couple of months earlier, in Scotland. ‘I frequently accompany my dear G. to visit it; we have lodgings in the close vicinity,’ she explained.
Life was genteel to start with - at least for officers’ wives like Mary Ann. The other wives would have been living at the Camp, but at least they could be with their husbands, unlike the wives who missed out on the ballots and couldn’t accompany their husbands when they were posted abroad. Mary Ann paid social calls, visiting the eccentric ‘Mr C’ (apparently Clarkson Cardinall in Tendring), and there was an entertainment at St Osyth Priory, then the home of the Nassaus.
Mary Ann and her husband were posted to Scotland, but a few months later they were back in Weeley. The transformation was astonishing: ‘we found so complete a metamorphosis, that I doubted whether some enchantress had not been exerting her magical powers; it appeared hardly possible that in so short a space of time, as seven or eight weeks, barracks to contain five thousand men, could have sprung up by the hands of men; yet so it is.’ The field had disappeared, churned to mud under the feet of men and horses, and huts had been built to accommodate the soldiers and their families.
The Grants arrived in November. Water ran down the walls of their hut, and the mud was so bad that Mary had to be carried. ‘There is no way for a woman to venture out, but upon men’s shoulders, no very pleasant conveyance you must allow’: no mean feat when she was pregnant. Her husband urged her to find lodgings elsewhere, but ‘there are no lodgings to be had within two miles, and owing to the strict orders now issued for no officer to be absent from the barracks, in consequence of the prevailing idea of an invasion’ her husband had to stay in the Barracks. And Mary Ann was determined to remain with him; she ‘really cannot account for my feelings, when I say, that I am unable to persuade myself to leave G.’
It is hardly surprising that tragedy would not be far away in such poor conditions. The Grants’ baby died: whether it was stillborn or not, Mary Ann didn’t say, but their daughter doesn’t appear in Weeley’s parish register, or that of any nearby village. Mary Ann nearly died in childbirth. Her isolation is painful; on writing to a friend in February 1804, she said ‘many a time, amid all my sufferings did we wish for the skilful attendance of my dear aunt, and the soothing attention of my amiable young friend, who I am certain would have made a very tender nurse; but situated as we were, it was impossible we could request either of you to come.’ Trying to recover her health was difficult, stressed with the fear of invasion: ‘it is thought this coast will be the point, where the effort of landing will be made; what a scene of destruction would such an event occasion.’
The Grants were still living in a barrack hut at Weeley in June, but conditions had improved – or at least, Mary Ann put a brave face on it. ‘You would smile to see the ways and means we fall upon, to make the unpolished furniture allotted us, look neat; the roads are nicely made, and we have the comfort of walking dry, and enjoying a little society; our agreeable parties have again commenced; you would be amused were you to hear our invitations to each other; they are always accompanied by a desire, that each person will bring their camp-stool, knife, glass, &c.; such is the order among those who occupy barracks.’ Her next letter was written from Lexden Camp, on the other side of Colchester, but she made no more mention of huts, so it seems that she had at last found lodgings.
The Grants were a married couple when they arrived at Weeley, but there were plenty of single men among the thousands of soldiers who arrived in the village. It’s clear from the many Scottish names in the marriage register that soldiers and possibly soldiers’ widows were marrying in Weeley’s church. Some of the soldiers married local girls – for instance, Patrick McCrummen married Mary Simpson Baker from St Osyth, and William MacAmman married Susan Bradbrook from Thorp. One can hear Lydia Bennett’s shriek of ‘The militia!’
The burial register is similarly busy with late residents of the barracks, including victims of an outbreak of disease, and also Alexander McDonald, who was murdered by locals at a fair in Little Clacton.
Once the threat of invasion had passed, the soldiers were moved on from Weeley. The barracks were dismantled, and all that’s left today is an empty field. It’s been said that if you pass through the field with a metal detector, you’ll find uniform buttons from obscure regiments of fencibles, which men joined before transferring to established army regiments. They just didn’t get around to changing their buttons, and at some point, the thread unravelled, and the button fell off their red jacket into the quagmire, lost for 200 years.
And aside from the buttons that are periodically thrown up from the earth, there are all those names in the parish registers, to remind us of the thousands of people who once called the huts in Barrack Field home.
The Story of Jaywick Martello Tower, by Essex County Council
Weeley parish registers at the Essex Record Office
Grant, Mary Ann. Sketches of Life and Manners with Delineations of Scenery in England, Scotland, and Ireland: interspersed with Moral Tales and Anecdotes, in original Letters: in two volumes. Vol. II. Second Edition, 1811. Printed by Cox, Son, and Baylis, London.
Helen Barrell’s Victorian true crime book Poison Panic: Arsenic Deaths in 1840s Essex is published by Pen & Sword [http://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/Poison-Panic-Paperback/p/11988/aid/1151] and is available from Waterstones [https://www.waterstones.com/book/poison-panic/helen-barrell/9781473852075], Amazon [https://www.amazon.co.uk/Poison-Panic-Arsenic-Deaths-1840s/dp/1473852072/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1455478552&sr=8-1&keywords=poison+panic], etc, in paperback and ebook. Fatal Evidence: Professor Alfred Swaine Taylor and the Dawn of Forensic Science will be published in July 2017. Helen has appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Punt PI, and has written for Fortean Times and Family Tree magazines. She guestblogs for Findmypast.