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6 months ago I wasn’t aware of any births on the Island. I knew a few troops were accompanied by their families on the Island from newspaper cuttings and parts of the buildings had been labelled as quarters. The first Island baby I found out about through Sue Cook sharing that her Grandmother, Geraldine Lamb had been born on the Island. Since then I have found out about another four births on the Island from both census records and Military records discovered by our Island Steward Cathie. Military records also show a school recorded on the Island in 1865. However this would have been one of the military wives teaching in an available room as opposed to a school building as such and the class size would have been small, no more than half a dozen or so, although with widely ranged ages as there were still only a few children on the Island at any one time. It’s their stories and how they are likely to have lived I’d like to share with you this week.

An 1811 Map of the Island showing how it would have looked when the first baby we know about was born on the Island in 1845

The earliest birth I am aware of is of George Woodhead in about 1845. Although I don’t have a copy of his birth certificate George enlisted in the Army aged 15 in 1860 and it is his Army Record that shows his birth as Drake’s Island. Unfortunately there is no next of kin but he is most likely to have been an Army child. The only civilian living on the Island then was the manager of the Canteen. His father would have been serving either in the Royal Artillery or a Regiment of Foot, both types of unit were on the Island at the time.

A drawing of the Island by Queen Victoria done from her Yacht by Mount Edgcumbe in 1846, a year after George’s birth

The Island would have looked significantly different back then, the Ablution Block and Infirmary wasn’t yet built though it would be over the next year or so. The Casemates and underground magazine and tunnel complex hadn’t even been planned, the Magazine was actually a building in the centre of the Island roughly behind where the Naval mast or gaff on the 1898 Battery now stands. Although there would have been other families apart from the Woodhead’s on the Island it is unlikely to have been many. Soldiers could only marry with their Commanding Officer’s consent, had to have served at least 7 years, have good character and prove they had savings. The family would have lived in a room, possibly sharing it with another family with the room partially screened off with a blanket in the Barracks. If George’s father held a more senior rank or there were only a few families they may have had a room to themselves in the Barracks or Governors House. The Army would have provided the most basic of furnishings, a table, stool or chair, fire irons and a bed and bedding, the family would have to provide everything else. Depending on the Regiment the quarters were subject to regular inspection. George’s mother would have been on the Regimental strength and subject to military law. As a family they would be expected to turn out for and attend the Sunday Church Parade. His father would receive his army food ration but there was no allowance for the rest of the family. George’s mother may have worked on the camp, by far the most common job was laundress and seamstress for the single soldiers. However if she wanted to work outside of camp she would have to ask for the Commanding Officer’s permission. Typical of the working week for George’s father would be Saturday afternoon off but only at the discretion of the Commanding Officer, Sunday would be Church Parade in the morning then the rest of the day free. Monday to Friday would generally start with reveille at 0600hrs, with drill and exercise through to 1700hrs with a break for a meal around 1300hrs. Tattoo or lights out would generally be sounded at 2200hrs.

The Governor’s House in the foreground and Barracks to the right. Both were built by 1845 and the families would have had a room or shared a room with another family in one or the other of the buildings.

The family whether George’s father served in the Infantry or Artillery would have moved around fairly frequently. The next we hear of George is some years later in 1860 when he enlists at the age of 15, although the recruiter thought he was only 13, in the 1st Battalion of the 11th Regiment of Foot which would later become the Devonshire Regiment. He was 4ft 10in tall and had light brown hair and blue eyes and enlisted as a Drummer and Fifer. His CO on signing on was Lt Col Moore and he gave his reason for enlisting as free kit. George went on to serve for 35 years retiring at the age of 48 (and now 5ft 6in tall) in 1896 at his own request having given 3 months notice. He seems to have had a colourful career twice reaching the rank of Sergeant before being reduced to the ranks before finally reaching Colour Sergeant a few years before his retirement. His career was mainly garrison duties at home in the UK and Ireland as well as serving 12 years in India from 1864 to 1877. We know from his records he was based in Chester, Salford, Dublin and Gawlior in India although the list is not complete. He married in 1879 but there is no record of any children.

Gwalior Fort in India where George spent part of his Military service.

The next birth we know about is the daughter of Gunner William Wilson and Margaret Wilson who they called Margaret Jane Wilson and was born in 1849. It appears that he was part of Major Shuttleworth’s Artillery Company but I can’t find the exact company or Battalion. There was a Captain Shuttleworth in the 7th Company of the 2nd Battalion in 1851 which was based in Devonport and this may have been William’s unit if Captain Shuttleworth had local or acting rank of Major as his service record would still show him in his substantive as a Captain.  The Island would have changed somewhat since George Woodhead’s birth 4 years earlier. The Ablution Block and Infirmary were now complete and the Governors House together with the Barracks received some alterations although the family’s living conditions wouldn’t have changed. Although William was part of the Gunner detachment the Island was also garrisoned by the 38th Regiment of Foot which would go on to be the 1st Staffordshire Regiment. That summer of 1849 there was an outbreak of cholera in the UK including the Plymouth area. The sanitation conditions in Plymouth along with many of the crowded large towns and cities were poor and contributed to the rapid spread of the disease. By August 50 people a day were dying in Plymouth and as many in Devonport. The Island wasn’t immune although they were probably less at risk the Garrison would nevertheless still have needed to gone to Royal William Yard for supplies. In August one of William’s fellow Gunners, Michael Russell was taken ill with an “Inward Cold” and moved immediately to the military hospital in Stoke (part of Plymouth for those readers not familiar with the City) and died of the disease a week later. It is not clear if he had cholera on the Island or contracted in the hospital. Intriguingly William, if he was still on the Island the following year, would have been part of the Gunner Company that attempted to smuggle Brandy into Plymouth through the Island. The Master Gunner and Canteen Manager hatched the plot and although the Canteen Manager escaped the Master Gunner was caught and dismissed from the Army.

A copy of Margaret Jane Wilson’s birth certificate

In May 1875 another young lad who joined the Army as a Boy Soldier aged 14 was Richard Dargan whose Army record shows he was born on the Island in 1861. A few years earlier the Island fortifications and buildings were described as dilapidated when inspected as part of the Commission into the defence of the UK. As Richard was born the Palmerston Casemates together with the Underground magazine and tunnel complex would have just been started so the Island would have been very busy with both the military and a large number of civilian workmen employed by Hubbards and Company constructing the new defences.

A painting of the Island from about 1850, a decade before Richard’s birth. The Island wouldn’t have looked different when he was born as the Casemates hadn’t yet been started.

His next of kin is recorded as his father, also named Richard of Greenwich. It seems likely as young Richard enlisted at Woolwich his father was a Gunner on the Island given that Woolwich is the Training Depot of the Royal Artillery, Greenwich is very close to Woolwich in London. Also a Gunner Richard Dargan is recorded as serving at Woolwich in 1861 so could be his father. Richard, like George earlier joined as musician but as a Trumpeter rather than a Drummer. He also gave the reason for enlistment as free kit. Richard is described as being 4ft 9in tall with grey eyes and brown hair. However his enlistment was short and he was medically discharged as unfit for service just over 3 years later on 31st January 1879 never having left the Woolwich Garrison but having grown to 5ft 4in tall. He apparently lived in Woolwich, presumably with his father after he was discharged but I have no further information on him.

The Island after the Casemates were built in about 1890 and how the Island would have looked when Mary was born in 1871.

Finally in 1871, just as the Palmerston defences were being completed Gunner John Butler and his wife Mary had a daughter who was also named Mary. She was 3 months old when the 1871 Census was recorded which shows her birth place as Drake’s Island. John at the time was 34 and his wife Mary was 25. Baby Mary was their first child and the Census shows they had their 71 year old Mother-in-Law, Martha Harris living with them. Both John and Mary were Irish although the Mother-in-Law was from Guernsey originally. John was part of a 53 man Gunner detachment, the 1st Battery of the 13th Artillery Brigade. The Battery was commanded by a 24 year old Irishman, Lt Robert Candy. In addition there was Battery Sergeant Major John Peril from Scotland, 2 Sergeants, 8 Bombardiers, 2 Corporals, 37 Gunners and a Master Gunner Thomas Hillyard and a Trumpeter. The youngest soldier was Trumpeter James Drakely aged 17 from Chatham in Kent although there were another 3 teenagers (all 19) on strength. The oldest was the Master Gunner, Thomas Hillyard at 49 years old There were 6 families in total. Three of the wives, Louise Watson, Ellen McCabe and Ann Brewin worked as Laundresses presumably in partnership. There were 13 children in all, 6 of whom are listed as scholars. 6 children were under school age, 5 or under and one 17 year old daughter who was over school age. There was one set of twins, the McCabes, George and Charles who were aged two. One of the scholars, John Heywood who was 8 years old was listed as a lodger with the Brewin family. I doubt if the Military would allow a lodger just to be taken in even though it was common at the time for rooms to be rented out it is unlikely the Brewins had a spare room. My guess is young John was a relative or at least well known to the family. One of the Battery Gunner Henry Costelloe was tried by Court Martial and found guilty of desertion the previous year but returned to the Battery after serving 56 days hard labour. This wouldn’t have been completely unusual as up to 10% of the Army of the time was on the run. This was eventually remedied by the Cardwell and Childers reforms of the Army of 1874 and 1881 respectively. Unfortunately as with Margaret Wilson and Richard Dargan I have no details of their later life.

Part of the 1871 Census. The last 4 lines record the Butler family, John, his wife Mary, daughter Mary aged 3 months and born on the Island and the Mother-in-Law Martha Harris.

I hope you have enjoyed these snapshots of Island life from when George, Margaret, Richard and Mary were born. Additionally of course Alice Maud “Geraldine” Lamb was born in 1897 making 5 Island births we know about. Tragically a stillborn was recorded in May 1875 on the Island. Could there be more births we don’t know about? Yes, I think there probably are. I only have a part census from 1841 and the Artillery Census from 1871 and there were censuses every 10 years from 1841 so the chances are there are more Island births but probably not that many. We know from records that once WWI finished the Island manning was very limited and at times down to just a civilian caretaker until WWII. Again once the War finished military manning declined very quickly until the Army finally left the Island in 1963. If I find out more I will do an update in another blog.