Kelly’s heroics and the tale of a soldier’s hard life and death

Epaulet episode: Captain Kelly’s famed exploits against the French at the Battle of Waterloo saw him the subject of prints and lithographs

SUNDAY SUPPLEMENT: One of the feted heroes in Wellington’s army made a home in Croydon but, as DAVID MORGAN explains, his duties took him far from his wife and family

“Daddy! Daddy! Tell us again the story of what you did in the war.”

Captain Edward Kelly, of the 1st Regiment of Life Guards back in the days of the Waterloo campaign, certainly had a great number of tales to tell. His exploits at the Battle of Waterloo itself were dashing enough for him to be given the nickname “Waterloo Kelly”. And he was Croydon’s Waterloo hero.

Exactly when he moved into his Croydon house isn’t known, but Boswell Court on South End (known as Boswell House these days) became the family residence sometime after 1815. The Battle of Waterloo, in which the Duke of Wellington’s forces delivered a final defeat to the French Emperor Napoleon, culminating on June 18, 1815.

Kelly’s wife Maria, a Mitcham girl, lived at the address until she died in 1860.

Kelly’s moment of triumph at the Battle of Waterloo was marred by the injury in the leg he received from a cannon shot. It was seven in the evening after a long and bloody day’s fighting when Kelly “had the side of his leg blown away without breaking the bone”, so he wrote to a military friend.

Home guards: Boswell House today, which was the home of the Kelly family for half of the 19th Century

To his wife, Kelly was less candid. “Now my dearest love I assure you most solemnly that it is only a flesh wound and the surgeon who dressed me here says he will ensure my being able to resume my duties in 10 days.”

Kelly did recover, but it took some time and the injury troubled him for the rest of his life.

Before being wounded, Kelly had been in the thick of the action.

The story which his children will have wanted to hear again and again was how he cut off the epaulets of a French cavalry officer. Leading his men in a charge, Kelly had singled out and unhorsed a French officer, Colonel Habert, of the 4th Cuirassiers. Habert was killed in this clash. Kelly dismounted and ran over to cut off the epaulets from his uniform to keep as a souvenir.

Kelly also managed to grab the Frenchman’s horse, but was forced to let it go in a subsequent counterattack. The bitter fighting continued with Kelly’s men being able to force the French soldiers back to the village of Genappe. These acts of bravery, carried out during such a period of fierce fighting, made Kelly’s name.

It also resulted in paintings and etching being produced of the incident which brought his name to the general public.

The Life Guards are the most senior regiment in the British Army, having been formed in the 17th Century, and now part of the Household Cavalry which played such a prominent role in last week’s Coronation parades.

At Waterloo, as cavalry, the Life Guards were involved in scouting for and pursuing the enemy. Some of the first engagements of the battle had taken place on June 17, including in a charge at Genape, which inspired Richard Simkins’ 1890 watercolour, Charge of the 1st Life Guards at Genape, 1815, part of the collection at the National Army Museum.

Kelly would have been there, in the thick of the action. The NAM’s notes say, “This was a brief cavalry skirmish that occurred during the French pursuit of Wellington’s army after Quatre Bras. Both the 1st and 2nd Life Guards were part of Major-General Lord Somerset’s Household Brigade. At Waterloo the following day they took part in the famous charge against Marshal D’Erlon’s Corps. The brigade destroyed several infantry formations, but despite attempts to recall them, continued to advance, eventually finding themselves at the bottom of a hill on blown horses.

“They were then subjected to a severe mauling by French lancers and cuirassiers.”

Charge!: the British Life Guards (right) confront French cavalry in Richard Simkins’ Charge of the 1st Life Guards at Genape, 1815, part of the collection at the National Army Museum

Kelly was hoping his own gallantry would bring him to the attention of the Duke of Wellington and win him a cherished promotion. Although Kelly was certainly praised throughout the Army, he didn’t get the preferment he wanted.

Kelly was very pleased with his efforts, though, as he told his wife;

“The officers and men from my Regmt are all pleased to bestow the most kind praises upon me and I consider myself most fortunate to be the first man in with the enemy in every attack we made.”

He received many gifts to mark his brave deeds. His fellow officers gave him a silver cup inscribed with the words, “This tribute of friendship”. The non-commissioned officers and men gave him a sword with a mother-of-pearl grip and a brass hilt. This had been inscribed, “For bravery at Genappe and Waterloo 17 and 18 June 1815”.

Kelly received a sword bearing a silver star, “The Reward of Merit”, from the Colonel of the Regiment, Lord Harrington. To top it all, he was presented with The Order and Cross of St. Anne from the Tsar of Russia.

His wound, though, was causing him problems.

Gangrene and infection were common among those wounded on the battlefield. A week after the battle he wrote to his wife. He told her that there were no complications and that no “unfavourable symptoms” had developed.

Long service: the inscription on Lt Col Kelly’s grave in Sitimarhi

He did reveal just what a price the regiment had paid for victory. He thought that half the regiment’s 230 men were dead. Almost all of those who survived were wounded. He let his wife know that he was the worst of the wounded officers and that the others had all travelled to rejoin the army. Kelly had to remain behind and was moved to Brussels.

On June 28, in his next letter to his wife, Kelly declares that his wound was “large and painful” and that he wished he had been wounded in the arm rather than the leg. He wrote again the following day obviously feeling very low. “My wound has turned out much more severe than was at first suspected… I now begin to fear my recovery will be very tedious as I cannot move in the bed with the agony of the wound.”

Kelly was worried about the future even before he was a casualty.

Money was often an issue. He was always concerned about his ability to provide properly for his wife and children. He even wrote to her stating that a fellow officer, Lind, who had been killed at Waterloo, owed him £40 and he hoped his family would honour the debt. A sum of £40 in 1815 is the equivalent of £4,500 today.

Kelly’s wounds did improve enough to enable him to return to England early in July. On the July 8, he managed to travel as far as Mitcham where one of his brothers-in-law lived. He was so fatigued though, that he couldn’t travel on to Marlow, where his wife was staying. He had written to her to say that he didn’t want her to make any decisions about their future until he was home.

It seems likely that the Kellys must have bought their home in Croydon, Boswell Court, shortly after this date. For Edward Kelly, though, the realisation that his wounds would no longer allow him to continue as a serving front line officer and that his bravery on the battlefield of Waterloo would count for nothing when it came to promotion started to weigh more heavily on him.

Kelly was eventually transferred in February 1819 to the 23rd Light Dragoons, who were then in the process of being disbanded. He was reduced to half pay. His father had wanted him to buy himself out of the army long before this and seek employment elsewhere, but Kelly resisted.

However, in 1823 he came out of his semi-retirement and returned to army life as aide de camp to Major-General Egerton, who commanded the army in Ireland, based in Dublin.

His wife remained in Croydon. A couple of years later Kelly was given another ADC post, this time to Stapleton Cotton, 1st Viscount Combermere, Commander-in-Chief in India.

Kelly enjoyed his life in India, especially as his son Edward joined the East India Company, becoming an ensign in 1824 and being promoted to Lieutenant in May 1825. Father and son were both involved in the three-week siege and subsequent capture of the fort at Bharatpur in January 1826.

In May 1826, Kelly was finally promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel and became Deputy Adjutant-General to the British forces in India.

Tragedy struck early in 1828. His son was taken ill in India and died. This affected Kelly deeply, He lived only a few months more. Lt Col Kelly died on August 6, 1828, aged 54 at Mullye and was buried in the Majorgunge Cemetery in the city of Sitimarhi. A newspaper report at the time stated that he had died after suffering from a painful and protracted illness which he first developed whilst being stationed in Ava, then Burma, now a part of Myanmar.

Remembered: Kelly’s family are buried in St Peter’s churchyard, South Croydon

A monument to mark his grave was erected by Viscount Combermere and Kelly’s fellow officers as a “last mark of respect and esteem”.

Kelly is remembered, too, on the family gravestone in St Peter’s churchyard in Croydon.

His widow died on December 22 1860. Anna Louisa, their eldest daughter, was buried there in December 1880. Anna Maria, their sixth and youngest child, was buried there in November 1868. Another daughter, Emma, was buried in Croydon in January 1866.

Kelly, it seems, was an impetuous man, tall and well-built, with a ready wit and humour.

He was reputed to be one of the best swordsman of his day. Viscount Combermere described him in a letter as “a brave soldier and warm-hearted companion”.

Kelly writing home during his final illness to his wife and “poor children” said,
“If I have not been a thoughtful, at least I have been an affectionate father and husband. My frailties were the result of early habits and a strong warm constitution. They were never in my heart, which as I hope for mercy hereafter, has been pure and honest.”

His aim was always to return home and retire, but his illness defeated him. He never got to use the curious and colourful collection of feathers he obtained from the Burmese jungle near Moulmein, ready to make new salmon fishing flies which he could use when he got back. Maybe some of that bravery had dimmed in his final year as he commented that in the jungle “there were too many tigers for comfort”.

The light had gone out on Croydon’s Waterloo hero.

Previous articles by David Morgan:

  • David Morgan, pictured right, is a former Croydon headteacher, now the volunteer education officer at Croydon Minster, who offers tours or illustrated talks on the history around the Minster for local community groups

If you would like a group tour of Croydon Minster or want to book a school visit, then ring the Minster Office on 020 688 8104 or go to the website on and use the contact page

  • If you have a news story about life in or around Croydon, or want to publicise your residents’ association or business, or if you have a local event to promote, please email us with full details at
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  • ROTTEN BOROUGH AWARDS: Croydon was named among the country’s rottenest boroughs for a SIXTH successive year in 2022 in the annual round-up of civic cock-ups in Private Eye magazine

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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email
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1 Response to Kelly’s heroics and the tale of a soldier’s hard life and death

  1. Great story. Well done IC for the ‘Kelly’s’ reference. How many of your loyal readers, most of whom I guess will be trendy leftie millennials, will get it?

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