A Window Into the Past
This well-worn three-page letter is not perhaps that remarkable as far as such things go. It is not in the hand of the great or famous, nor does it recount some historic deed or event. The contents are in fact rather mundane in nature, consisting of the thoughts of an otherwise forgotten soldier of the queen put to paper for the benefit of his brother and sister. One might consider the most remarkable thing is that these three small, yellowed and tattered pages survived at all after almost 150 years, but perhaps, more importantly, the letter opened a larger window onto the life of its sender.
Above: The first page of then Corporal Thomas Shaw of the 6th Regiment of Foot to his brother and sister, probably while still posted to Ireland with the regiment’s 2nd Battalion. Source: Collection of Edward T. Garcia/soldiersofthequeen.com.
Dated February 9, 1874, the letter was written by the newly promoted No. 205 Corporal William Shaw of “A” Company, 2nd Battalion, the 6th Regiment of Foot to his Brother and sister from Belfast, Ireland. Shaw begins his letter in the most of traditional of manners:
“Dear Brother & Sister, It is with pleasure I’ve now sit down to write to you hoping these will find you all at home enjoying good & perfect health…”
I will not offer a complete or verbatim transcription of Shaw’s letter but he writes about events that today would be related via a phone call or even text messages. He mentions his recent promotion to corporal, inquires after other family members including his father, uncles, aunts and various children.
“I am promoted corporal & left the drummers & gone to my duty and that we are now getting on very nicely…”
Above: The second page of Shaw’s February 1874 letter home. Source: Collection of Edward T. Garcia/soldiersofthequeen.com.
While Shaw’s letter consists primarily of familiar small talk, the mention of his regiment, and service number led to the discovery of his January 1878 discharge papers. These offer us a view of his life with the “colours” as well as a rather sad end to his military service.
Born about 1838 at St. Mark’s, Lincolnshire, Shaw attested with the 2/6th on 4 November 1857. He was appointed drummer on 1 October 1865 and then corporal (for the first time) on17 May 1868. On 11 July 1868 Shaw was reduced to private after being convicted by courts-martial for being drunk on duty. He was reappointed drummer on 1 September 1868 and promoted corporal for the second time (his promotion mentioned in his letter) on 3 February 1874. Promoted sergeant on 1 March 1876, Shaw was detached from duty with his regiment for service with the 3rd Warwick Militia on 25 May 1876. He would be discharged from service due to “Being found unfit for further military service” on 17 February 1878.
Although Shaw did not serve actively in any campaigns, he did see a bit of the empire, being stationed overseas: at Gibraltar for a bit more than four years, the Ionian Islands for just under two and the West Indies for almost four. In spite of his 1868 court-martial and resulting demotion, towards the end of his career, he was awarded the Long Service & Good Conduct Medal.
Being found unfit for further military service was not an uncommon happenstance in Victoria’s army. A long-serving soldier could be rendered thus as the result of wounds received in battle, from injuries acquired performing garrison duty or any of the sicknesses or diseases found both at home and the far-flung corners of the empire. For Shaw, it was something more ominous. One the second page of his discharge papers giving the reason for his leaving the army, boldly in red ink is the word “Insane”.
On his medical report sheet, a more specific diagnosis is given as “Paralysis of the Insane”. This is an archaic medical term that apparently most often referred to serious mental decline brought on by previous syphilitic infections. The condition almost always resulted in death of the patient, often quite soon after diagnosis. Interestingly Shaw’s medical history sheet lists the cause of his condition as “climatic conditions” and as the result of “Long service in the Mediterranean and W. Indies where he was much affected by the sun.” Shaw’s cause of Shaw’s diagnosis was not the usual one and this is further reflected on his medical sheet by his regimental surgeon who wrote: “A hopeful case. Is partially able to his own support.”
In any event, upon discharge Shaw was committed to the hospital at Bow (probably St. Clements) for a period of 12 months. Former Sergeant Thomas Shaw disappears from the records after this. His fate remains unknown as does his family origins.
Above: The third page of Corporal Shaw’s to his brother and sister. Throughout the letter, Shaw seems to address himself in the plural “we” form, but in fact, it appears that his sister Elizabeth was living with him while posted to Ireland. Source: Collection of Edward T. Garcia/soldiersofthequeen.com.