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Recollections of Thirty-nine Years in the Army
Chapter XXV


1868-1870. PORTSMOUTH

Duties—Geology—Societies formed—Portland prison—Parkhurst---Garrison prisons Gymnastics—Arrival of 33rd and 101st Regiments—Man of 3rd Light Dragoons —Sale of decorations—Illness—Discharging soldiers—Comments.

APPOINTED to the Southern District,' the duties connected with departmental administration were entered upon without delay. Within the garrison of Portsmouth, headquarters of the district, they included work relating to embarking and disembarking troops, in addition to ordinary routine; through the district, inspections of military establishments and places with which I was already familiar.

In visiting establishments on the Isle of Wight some pleasant excursions were taken in company with a kindred spirit in regard to natural things. With geological map in hand, we walked from point to point comparing the strata as we proceeded with the several illustrative sketches there presented. So also official visits to the Isle of Portland gave opportunity of studying the history presented by its rocks and strata, with regard to its alternating elevations and submergences in geological periods. The operations in progress at Spithead in connection with forts intended to be built there supplied with ample material in different shapes those among us whose tastes led us to take interest in them.

Among our numbers were several men devoted to different branches of natural history; others whose tastes and pursuits were in more purely professional subjects. By means of a happy combination between the two a society was set on foot, a room with fuel and light assigned to its use by the War Office, and an excellent library collected. Papers were read at its meetings, abstracts being published in the London professional journals. So great was the success which attended our efforts that a society of allied kind was established by scientific and professional residents of Portsmouth and its vicinity.

The then governor of Portland convict prison had previously held a similar position at Norfolk Island, to which at that time the worst and most desperate criminals were sent from New South Wales. The men he had there to deal with were the most desperate and reckless of their class; but some of the accounts Mr. Clifton gave regarding his method towards them were most interesting, some even pathetic, the keynote of his system having been, on suitable occasions, to appeal to their human nature. With evident gusto we were invited to enter what he called his museum of implements with which from time to time attempts on his life had been made by convicts under his charge; and very miscellaneous were they as they lay upon their shelves, duly labelled and arranged. Among the convicts were some who had in their day occupied high social position, one of them in particular. Passing them as we did, our gaze was averted as we did so, but it was not in us to withhold from them a thought of pity.

At Parkhurst the "governor" of the convict prison was a lady, the convicts being women. It was the boast of Mrs. Gibson that, in maintaining discipline and administering justice for offences, no barrier of any kind separated her from the offender brought before her, and yet, unlike the experience already mentioned, with the exception of one occasion, violence had never been offered her. "Unless," said she, "I have sufficient moral power to maintain order, my influence would be gone." Her daughter had been carefully tended from infancy to womanhood by a life convict. But among her prisoners were some whose disposition was most desperate; there were others who, when they "felt a fit of passion coming on," made request to their "governor" that, as a favour, she would allow them to "go to the pump," so that by the violent exertion there required of them they might "work it off." A short time previous there had been under her charge as life convict a young lady, the story of whose "crime" and conviction occupied public attention to a more than usual degree, the question of her guilt being no less discussed than were the circumstances under which her confession had been obtained, the reality of that confession, and the relation of "confessors" to the individual on the one hand, and to law on the other.

The periodical inspection of Garrison prisoners came within the ordinary routine of duty. As a matter of information, inquiries on such occasions were directed to the effect, if any, of punishments undergone by soldiers in deterring them from subsequent crime, the usual reply received being that " the same men come here over and over again." Past experience in regiments had been to the same effect in regard to offences, and to a considerable extent also to men coming "on the sick report" to hospital, the numbers of the latter depending greatly upon the kind of duty, parades, drills, and so on, that was about to take place. Regimental surgeons understood all such moves on the part of the men, and for the most part were able to estimate at its approximate value the statements made by individuals.

While visiting a military gymnasium, attention was drawn to performances by the non-commissioned officer in charge, a noted gymnast, some of whose feats on the trapeze and otherwise were remarkable as showing high proficiency in his art. At the time of their performance his appearance indicated advanced phthisis, and within a month thereafter he succumbed to that condition. Other instances more or less similar to his have come under notice, indicating that the ability to perform feats of "strength" and agility is not a constant indication of robust health, although it may be of "knack" acquired by practice.

Duty brought me in contact from time to time with regiments with which on previous occasions I had been associated; for example, the 34th at Azimghur, 3th at Dinapore, 97th at Sooltanpore, and 67th at Tientsin. The arrival of the 33rd from Abyssinia was made an occasion to do honour to the gallant "West Ridings" for its services in that campaign. That of the iorst on its first tour of home service was attended by various incidents, some amusing in their way, showing how new to the men were the conditions in which they found themselves Fortunately for them "comrades" in garrison gave them willing help in landing baggage, carrying coals, filling straw beds, and so on.

Visiting the barracks at Chichester, I learned some particulars with reference to the sequel of the incident connected with a soldier of the 3rd Light Dragoons at Wuzzeerabad in 1853. That regiment now occupied those barracks preparatory to going on foreign service, but so numerous had been the changes during the interval that with difficulty was one man found who remembered it. According to his account the particulars given by the man then alluded to, in regard to his part in the murder on Wandsworth Common, the disposal of watch and chain of his victim, were confirmed by subsequent inquiries. The man himself was condemned to a lunatic asylum, and there he died.

While walking along High Street on one occasion, attention was attracted to two medals exposed for sale in the window of a well-known silversmith of that day. To them was attached a short printed notice relating that they were the identical decorations presented to the two men most distinguished for gallantry in the battle of Waterloo. In default of heirs they had come to be among the contents of an old curiosity shop. They had respectively been bestowed upon Colonel Macdonell and Sergeant Graham, both of the Coldstream Guards, for their defence of Hougomont against the combined forces under Jerome Bonaparte, Foy, and Bachelu. On subsequent occasions, orders and decorations for the Mutiny campaign were, for lack of heirs, sold by public auction; a commentary on the passing value of such things, highly prized though they are by those on whom, for services rendered, they were conferred in the first instance.

In the spring of 1870 I experienced in person what in many other instances is a sequence of continued attacks of malarious illness, in that they seemed to culminate in one of great severity, even after nearly a year and a half of English climate. To the great care and skill of two army surgeons I owe my recovery—indeed, my life.

Restoration to full activity was slow. Meantime, a duty devolved upon me the nature of which was unpleasant, as it seemed to me invidious. A scheme of Army retrenchment was to be enforced. In accordance therewith reductions in the numbers of men borne on their rolls were ordered to be carried out in regiments in our particular district as in others; the instructions under which officers concerned were obliged to act leaving to them little, if any, discretionary power.

The classes of men to be selected for discharge, and so make room or recruits to be enlisted under the short service system, comprised— (1) the sickly and weak; (2) those of bad character; (3) those who for reasons of their own were desirous of obtaining discharge. It was felt that, of the first, the greater number would be cast adrift, incapable of earning a livelihood, and so be thrown upon parish relief; that by the second, a number of incorrigible characters would be let loose on the public, to prey upon it either by begging or by crime, to be further a burthen to the taxpayer in respect to expenses of prosecution, and of maintenance in prison while undergoing punishment for crimes committed. The third class was composed of those who, having become trained soldiers, inured to discipline, were lost to the service when their individual value was at its greatest. Some of us felt strongly then that such numerical reductions as were deemed necessary, on account of public reasons, might have been carried out by the more gradual and less objectionable method of ceasing to recruit for a few weeks or months.


 


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