HISTORY FEATURE: The life of William — one of the Old Brigade

LIFE expectancy in the UK for someone born in 1836 was 40 years.

William Richardson lived for more than double that — and that included fighting in the Crimean War campaign which left more than 22,000 Brits dead.

He was Rotherham’s last veteran of that military campaign, running a barber’s and newsagent’s shop on Wellgate after his dramatic adventure in the 1850s conflict.

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William was born in the peaceful town of Retford on March 17, 1836, and left for Sheffield when he needed to complete his hairdressing apprenticeship.

He was living in the city when the Crimean War broke out — and it was his youthful spirit of adventure and a sense of duty which attracted him to signing up to the armed forces.

He heard the call for men and answered it by joining the 1st Royal Dragoons.

As a recruit, William trained in York, Westminster and Canterbury, the last being the depot of the 1st Royal and the Inniskilling Dragoons.

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William — now Trooper Richardson — soon left England to join his regiment, whose ranks had been decimated in October 1854 at the Battle of Balaclava in the Crimea.

He was still only 18 years old as he set sail with the 6th Carbineers on the troopship Orinoco to the scene of the hostilities.

But soon after setting foot on the soil of eastern Europe, William was taken ill.

He was suffering from fever and dysentery, which meant him being confined to hospital for some few weeks — and what a place that was.

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It was described as being enough to make the most courageous soldier cower — let alone a young teenager who was yet to see anything of the horrors of war.

The hospital had nothing more than basic, crude arrangements for dealing with the sick and injured.

William was surrounded by dying men — and began to wonder whether it would be his turn very soon.

The hospital food consisted solely of boiled rice. There were none of the comforts you might have enjoyed back in Britain.

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William was still suffering from dysentery when he left the hospital after a few weeks to help in active service with his regiment.

He had a horse assigned to him, despite there being only 11 of the animals left from the original 110. “Poor Old Jack” — as he called the horse — would later be sold to the Turkish government after the war was over.

William remained in Crimea until the September 1855 fall of Sevastopol, at which he was present.

He left there for Scutari on the day that the docks were blown up, and it was here that the regiment was ordered to stay for the winter, owing to the stables providing decent accommodation for the horses.

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The soldiers themselves suffered terribly in the low temperatures, however. Each man had just one blanket, and this was quite ineffective at keeping out the cold.

And the rations were nothing to write home about.

The men were given mouldy biscuits — “as green as grass” — and dried salted beef, which was facetiously described as “mahogany wood”. They were given coffee beans or dirty chocolate from which to make something to drink.

What added to the irritation of William and the other soldiers was the fact that a massive shipload of provisions and blankets were being allowed to rot in the nearby Scutari harbour.

These items had been kindly donated by the generous people back in England but were stranded because of something we might consider to be a much more modern problem — red tape.

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The supplies could not be distributed to the men without permission from some high government authority back here. That permission never came.

Also at Scutari was the hospital where Florence Nightingale — the founder of modern nursing — was carrying out her amazing work for the soldiers.

There was a song composed in her honour which the men would sing with gusto. One verse was:

“So forward, my lads, let your hearts never fail,

Now you’re cheered by the presence of a sweet Nightingale;

Her heart it means good, for no bounty she’ll take,

She’ll lay down her life for a poor soldier’s sake.”

After peace was proclaimed in 1856 the 1st Royal Dragoons — or what remained of them — returned home. Of the draft, which had numbered about 50, only two came back — the others having been killed in the conflict or died from illness.

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William and a sergeant landed at Portsmouth and marched through Farnham to Aldershot, where they were reviewed by Queen Victoria, the Prince Consort and the Princess Royal.

Prince Albert inspected their medals and asked both men about their travails during the Crimean War.

This was not to be William’s only brush with royalty.

After stays in Aldershot and Dublin, he was appointed an officer’s servant and had the honour of personally waiting on the Prince of Wales at dinner.

And William helped fire the cannon when the Prince — later King Edward VII — married Princess Alexandra of Denmark in 1863.

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After being stationed at Coventry, William went to Birmingham to act as valet to Captain Ewing Griffiths, with whom he went to the Duke of Beaufort’s estate at Badminton every winter.

It was while there that he was again selected to wait at dinner on the future king.

William’s 12 years of service were soon at an end and he took his discharge from the army, returning to South Yorkshire in 1866.

That same year saw him establish his business in Wellgate, and it was as a newsagent just as much as a Crimea veteran that he became one of the most highly respected men in Rotherham well into the 20th century.

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He was a staunch supporter of the Conservative party, and a founder member of the Rotherham Unionist Club.

William died while visiting his daughter in Sheffield on the evening of Wednesday, May 23, 1923 and his funeral took place at Rotherham Cemetery the following Tuesday afternoon.

“As Mr Richardson was a Crimean veteran, it was fitting that his remains should be laid to rest with military honours,” reported the Advertiser.

“Crowds of people witnessed the start of the procession in Wellgate, and many more were present in the cemetery.

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“The coffin, covered with the Union Jack, on which was the helmet worn by Trooper Richardson in the Crimea, was borne, on a gun carriage supplied by the 284th Battery, Royal Field Artillery.

“The Rev Canon Allen, Vicar of Rotherham, conducted the ceremony, at the close of which the buglers sounded the Last Post, and the firing party fired three volleys over the grave.”

Just a couple of months earlier, the Advertiser had sent its hearty congratulations to William as he celebrated his birthday.

The paper noted at the time: “Not many men have survived the rigours of the Crimean War to attain the ripe old age of 87 years.

“Mr Richardson’s life story is one of good citizenship, peaceful business pursuits, and thrilling war adventure.”



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