Recovering the Voices of Marginalised People

Guest post written by Lynn MacKay, author of Women and the British Army, 1815-1880 – a part of Boydell and Brewer’s new series, Britain’s Soldiers.

Recovering the voices of marginalised people can be an exhilarating exercise for social and cultural historians. It often requires the use of sources not conventionally employed by historians of the good and the great. My recent book, Women and the British Army, 1815-1880 explores the lives of the women who married or dealt with enlisted men or NCOs in the nineteenth-century British army. Early in my research I discovered a curious text called Ellen of Ayr, which at first glance appeared – frustratingly – to be a Victorian novel about a Scottish soldier’s wife; frustrating because so few documents written by soldiers’ wives of the nineteenth century have survived. Closer examination of the preface, however, revealed it to be a lightly fictionalised autobiography narrated by a Scottish soldier’s wife and edited by a male working-class autodidact, Charles Neill. The prickly question of whether it could be used as a reliable historical source turned on the ability to identify the soldier’s wife and to corroborate her claims with outside sources, or at least the claims I wished to use. Ellen of Ayr is a tricky source, however, for while Neill claimed never to have “perverted the truth”, and to have changed only the names of characters (although I discovered that he consistently kept first names) he did admit to creating one fictitious character, very likely the saintly officer’s wife who suffered domestic abuse, but still offered Ellen moral guidance. In tropes beloved of nineteenth-century authors, Ellen attended her death bed and was visited by her ghost (still advising her). Given these issues, could this book be a reliable source?

The most easily verifiable event in the book was Ellen’s tale of the terrors of an earthquake she experienced on the Greek island of Zante, which she said occurred on 29 December 1821 at 4 a.m. A quick Google search turned up an article from the Literary Chronicle and Weekly Review from 3 March 1821, which not only described a very destructive earthquake occurring at exactly the time Ellen named, but also identified the British regiment stationed on Zante, the 36th Foot. With this knowledge it was possible to examine the regiment’s 1821 muster books, which indicated that a private named James O’Neil had joined another regiment in 1816 and transferred to the 36th the next year, information which coincided with internal evidence in the book concerning the husband, also named James. The most crucial piece of evidence that James O’Neil was indeed the husband of the Ellen in Neill’s book, came in one of the regiment’s 1836 muster books. According to Ellen of Ayr, James died of cholera at Kinsale. The muster book indicates that James O’Neil died of cholera at Kinsale on 9 July 1832 and that he left his widow, Ellen, a woman from Edinburgh. Other characters in the book can also be identified: the new commanding officer who was a martinet, Lt. Col. W., was Lt. Col. Charles Wyndham; the adjutant was J.D. Hamilton-Hay, and the regimental school master was Francis Murphy. Finally, the places where the regiment served according to the muster books, precisely match the movements Ellen described to Neill throughout the text.

As satisfying as it was simply to identify the various characters and events, being able to use it as a source was even more so: this text was invaluable in trying to illuminate the ways in which these wives made sense of the world and ordered their priorities. One of the other women who can be identified, was an Irish wife called Sgt. Kate in the Neill book since she had wanted to fight alongside the men when the British were in danger of attack in the Ionian Islands. In real life she almost certainly was Kate Lawrence. Neill tells with humorous condescension the tale of how she was thrown out of barracks: this apparently impulsive Irish woman had a grievance against the regimental schoolmaster, and so hurled pieces of tripe at him all the while abusing him verbally at great volume. When she saved one piece to hurl at the adjutant – an officer – who had also displeased her, she was immediately evicted. But why would a woman who had lived successfully within the regimental community for many years, suddenly pursue a financially ruinous course of behaviour? Reference to the muster books reveals quite a different version of the tale. When she turned her tripe into missiles Kate Lawrence was about to leave the regiment; her husband was being discharged, likely for health reasons. This meant she could take revenge on two new members of the 36th (according to the muster books) who apparently had not learned its culture and who consequently had treated the wives in ways the latter thought unfair. Lawrence could do so, moreover, without fear of retribution since she was leaving in any case. Sources like Ellen of Ayr, if carefully corroborated, allow historians to recover the priorities and behaviour of plebeian historical actors which would otherwise remain opaque and mystifying.

Lynn MacKay is a Professor of History at Brandon University, Manitoba, Canada.

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