Hiding in plain sight

Hiding in plain sight

While doing some research on Hamilton Barracks for a forthcoming talk (watch this space!) I came across a couple of photographs in the collection that I hadn’t seen before. They show the Permanent Staff of the Militia Battalions that were stationed at Hamilton Barracks.

Warrant Officers and Non Commissioned Officers of the 3rd and 4th (Militia) Battalions of The Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) and Highland Light Infantry.

The photographs appear to date from the 1890s, and were taken outside the Officers Mess building at the north end of Hamilton Barracks.

Warrant Officers and Non Commissioned Officers of the 3rd and 4th (Militia) Battalions of The Cameronians (Scottish Rifles).

Whenever I come across a ‘new’ photograph I always examine the faces of the men shown in the hopes that I might recognise someone. This can help establish the identity of the unit (if not recorded on the photograph or its catalogue record) and possibly help date the image. Uniform details, such as what medals are worn, or what kind of tartan the Cameronian soldiers are wearing (they didn’t start wearing Douglas tartan until April 1892), can prove useful in narrowing down a time period.

In the first photograph, showing a mix of men from the Cameronians and HLI, I immediately spotted; Pipe Major James Nesbit, (standing on the left, wearing a kilt), Quartermaster Sergeant Tommy Finn (seated fifth from left), Sergeant Major Frederick Brightman (seated centre), and Sergeant Major William Taylor (seated seventh from the right). All of these men had lengthy service with the regular battalions of The Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) before transferring to the Permanent Staff of the militia battalions. In the case of Tommy Finn, he had started his military career as a boy soldier with the 90th (Perthshire) Light Infantry, serving as a bugler to General (later Field Marshal) Evelyn Wood VC during the Zulu War.

Close-up of Tommy Finn, wearing his medal for service in South Africa 1877-79 and the Long Service and Good Conduct Medal. Tommy died in 1921, by which point he was Quartermaster of the 3rd Battalion Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) holding the rank of Major.

Pipe Major Nesbit and Sergeant Major Taylor are both present in the second image, but QMS Finn and Sergeant Major Brightman are missing – suggesting perhaps the photographs weren’t taken at the same time.

While scrutinising the other faces, my heart almost skipped a beat when I saw the medals proudly worn by one Cameronian soldier…

This soldier is wearing the Victoria Cross – Britain’s highest award for gallantry in the face of the enemy.

This reclining sergeant is wearing the Victoria Cross, the highest gallantry award awarded to British service personnel for bravery in the face of the enemy. The sergeant, who is also present in the other photograph, is none other than Edmund Fowler VC.

Sergeant Edmund Fowler VC.

Fowler was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions in South Africa in 1879, while serving as a private soldier in the 90th (Perthshire) Light Infantry, later the 2nd Battalion Scottish Rifles. His citation reads:

On the 28th March, 1879, during the assault of the Inhlobane Mountain, Sir Evelyn Wood ordered the dislodgment of certain Zulus (who were causing the Troops much loss) from strong natural caves commanding the position in which some of the wounded were lying. Some delay occurring in the execution of the orders issued, Captain the Honourable Ronald Campbell, Coldstream Guards, followed by Lieutenant Lysons, Aide-de-Camp, and Private Fowler, ran forward in the most determined manner, and advanced over a mass of fallen boulders, and between walls of rock, which led to a cave in which the enemy lay hidden. It being impossible for two men to walk abreast, the assailants were consequently obliged to keep in single file, and as Captain Campbell was leading, he arrived first at the mouth of the cave, from which the Zulus were firing, and there met his death. Lieutenant Lysons and Private Fowler, who were following close behind him, immediately dashed at the cave, from which led several subterranean passages, and firing into the chasm below, succeeded in forcing the occupants to forsake their stronghold. Lieutenant Lysons remained at the cave’s mouth for some minutes after the attack, during which time Captain Campbell’s body was carried down the slopes.

London Gazette, 7th April 1882

The lieutenant mentioned in the citation was Henry Lysons, also of the 90th (Perthshire) Infantry, and who was also awarded the Victoria Cross for the same action.

Both Fowler’s and Lysons’ medals are in the regimental museum collection, and are on display in Low Parks Museum. I knew from Fowler’s medals that he had later joined the Royal Irish Regiment and had served with them in Egypt, thus qualifying for the 1882 Egypt Medal and Khedive’s Star, but I had no idea that he had returned to the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) once more, serving on the Permanent Staff of the 3rd (Militia) Battalion. A check of Fowler’s service records (via FindMyPast) gives the following outline of his service:

Joins 90th (Perthshire) Light Infantry on 17th March 1877, with regimental number 1317.

Pays for discharge from 90th at Netley on 29th January 1880, after almost three years of good service.

Re-enlists Royal Irish Regiment on 15th February 1882, with regimental number 373.

Awarded Victoria Cross by Queen Victoria, 13th May 1882.

Transfers to Permanent Staff, 3rd Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) on 16th March 1896, with regimental number 5484.

Promoted Colour Sergeant 14th May 1898

Discharged 13th February 1900, having been found no longer physically fit for active service due to chronic ulcers of the leg.

The information from Fowler’s record can help us narrow down the dates of the photographs even further. As he doesn’t appear to be wearing the rank insignia of a Colour Sergeant in either photograph, they were likely taken between March 1896, when he transfers to the 3rd Battalion, and May 1898, when he is promoted to Colour Sergeant.

I’m always amazed at the stories that are often hidden away in these old photographs, just waiting to be rediscovered.

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Posted: 01/09/2022 by BarrieDuncan in Antecedant Regiments, Collections, News in General, Victorian Period

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