MARVELS OF THE MINSTER: In his latest journey through the vaults of Croydon history, DAVID MORGAN looks at the lifetime of an officer in the era of the Duke of Wellington and the Peninsular War
When the churchyard of Croydon Minster was reconfigured in the 1960s, to make way for the six-lane urban motorway that is Roman Way, the vast majority of the gravestones and memorials were lost. Some of the stones were used as slabs for footpaths, while others were repositioned close to the church building.
Subsequent generations of historians and genealogists from Croydon and beyond have lost out in not being able to wander through the graveyard looking for names and occupations, epitaphs and memorials, as well as appreciating the natural habitats associated with churchyards.
This is the tale about one such lost stone, a name gone from public view, an inscription never to be seen again.
Originally, this grave had been positioned on the south side of the church and on the south side of the pathway leading to what is now called the Tudor Gate. If you had wandered past this memorial you, too, might have been curious.
It read: “Captain Samuel Johnson, late of Her Majesty’s Royal Waggon Train. Died July 10 1828, aged 44”.
While Capt Johnson shared the same name as the man famous for compiling the first English dictionary, there was no family relationship. More interesting, though, was the fact that he served in the Royal Waggon Train.
Readers of a certain vintage may recall the television series Wagon Train, which was set in the American Prairies in the “Wild West” of the mid-1800s, and which featured settlers venturing across America in covered wagons, with the theme music titled “Wagons Ho!”
Johnson’s waggon train was more like something from Sharpe’s Rifles than Winchester ’73, and while less dramatic on a day-by-day basis, it will have had nevertheless had real moments of crisis and danger during a tumultuous period of history.
The Royal Waggon Train was formed in the 1790s to service the army on its expeditions.
Initially serving in the Peninsular War under the Duke of Wellington, it also saw service at Waterloo.
The Waggon Train supported the British forces under Wellington throughout the Peninsula campaign as they initially sailed from Ireland to retake the naval base at Lisbon in 1808, right through to the storming of San Sebastian in 1813, driving Napoleon’s forces back into France.
For their efforts in the Peninsula War, the Royal Waggon Train was awarded the battle honour “Peninsula”.
They were still supporting the British army in 1815 when Wellington again faced Bonaparte’s forces at Waterloo, this time inflicting a comprehensive defeat on the French Emperor.
Army support today is in the form of the Royal Logistics Corps, one unit of them being based in Croydon. Back in Johnson’s day, there was also an army presence in the town.
The threat of a French invasion was enough for volunteers to report for duty at the barracks in Mitcham Road. These barracks became a base for cavalry in their preparations for service overseas. After just a short time, the Mitcham Road garrison became the depot and headquarters of the Royal Waggon Train, so it is no surprise that a captain from that group should be buried in the graveyard at what was then known as Croydon Parish Church.
The history of the Royal Waggon Train is only a short one, before it evolved into a new unit. Better support for the army was certainly needed at the end of the 18th Century. The defeat suffered in the American War of Independence, the debacle in the campaign in the Low Countries, together with the devastation suffered in the West Indies with disease rampant in the garrisons there meant that a rethink and restructure was needed in the echelons of power.
The Duke of Wellington was a key figure in this.
Surgeons were allocated to this group who would have to deal not only with the many daily medical needs of the army but also to operate on those injured or wounded in battle. Vets were employed to work with the horses and mules. These animals were vital for pulling and carrying heavy loads and so needed to be kept in good condition. This would always prove to be a challenge but it was Wellington’s attention to detail that ensured that his army looked after and used these animals in the best possible way.
A further aspect of the work of this corps can be found in the rank of a person being given as “Cornet”. In today’s language, he would be a bandsman or a bugler. This title casts light on an interesting report of the Royal Waggon Train.
Local people were captivated by the musicianship of these soldiers and a popular Sunday afternoon pastime for many Croydon folk would have been to promenade to the barracks opposite the officers’ quarters and listen to their band playing.
According to a report of the time, this was one of the few opportunities for entertainment to be had by the local residents. One of the pubs close to the base, The Six Bells, even got its name from a musical instrument used by the band at that time.
Capt Johnson’s role in the Waggon Train is unclear. We do know that he was made Lieutenant on January 10, 1811, and was promoted to Captain on October 3 that year. He served in the Peninsula War from April 1810 to September 1812, then again from September 1813 to April 1814.
He is not listed among the Royal Waggon Train contingents who were part of the Battle of Waterloo. His first service in the Peninsula War probably ended after Wellington’s first impressive battle success, at the Battle of Salamanca in July 1812. After such a pitched battle with 5,000 casualties from Wellington’s forces, the Royal Waggon Train would have had to “clean up”.
Wounded soldiers had to taken to medical tents. The dead had to be collected before burial. Weapons needed to be retrieved before the job of cleaning and repairing them could start. Horses and mules whose riders and drivers had been killed or wounded had to be rounded up. This part of their work was certainly the most unpleasant.
We do not know anything further about Captain Johnson; no family details, no cause of death. It could be that he continued to serve right up to the time of his death. The soldier who supported the early career of the Iron Duke in a long campaign has had his final resting place disturbed and his memorial stone removed. Reading this tale ensures his Croydon association lasts a little longer.
- David Morgan is researching a new book on the Rectors of Croydon in the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries.
- To read previous David Morgan articles on the history of Croydon Minster and the people connected with it, click here
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Fascinating account of a person and the times. The vision of elegantly dressed Croydonians promenading past the barracks in Mitcham Road to listen to the Royal Waggon Train bandsmen playing is lovely, but the cleaning up the human and animal battlefield at Salamanca is a brutal counterpoint.
A shame that Roman Way and its noise and emission pollution blights the Minster now, and destroyed much of the historic graveyard. The chances of listening to a military band without the pollution might, however, return in coming decades, with the onset of electric cars and vans.
Slight error in that a Cornet had nothing to do with music or the instrument. It was actually the lowest rank of commissioned officer in the army, about equivalent to 2nd Lieutenant today.