Posts Tagged ‘Penrith’

In the early nineteenth-century Hartsop Hall in Patterdale was owned by the Earl of Lonsdale but farmed by yeoman Robert Grisdale, whose family had made the short trip from Dockray in Matterdale to the Patterdale area about a hundred years before. The hall ‘is a very old building’ and ‘was once the seat of a distinguished family, whose arms at one time were to be seen above the doorway’. In 1903, the Rev W. P. Morris, the Rector of Patterdale, wrote: ‘The Lancasters of Sockbridge, one of whom was Provost of Queen’s College, Oxford, held the lands round about Hartsop in the early part of the seventeenth-century. Sir John Lowther acquired the property by marriage, and his descendant, the present Earl of Lonsdale, is now lord of the manor of Hartsop.’ Morris continues:

There is a right of way through the house. It was into this house that the notorious gang of burglars attempted to enter with the intention of murdering the whole family. These desperadoes were the terror not only of the neighbourhood of Patterdale, but also in and about Penrith.

Hartsop Hall, Patterdale

Hartsop Hall, Patterdale

No more information is given regarding the gang’s ‘intention of murdering the whole family’, but Morris adds: ‘Robert Grisdale, the then farmer, was one night riding home on horseback from Cockermouth when he was accosted by two of them when coming through Dockray. He at once perceived what their intentions were, but he showed them his pistol and galloped home in safety. It was not considered safe for any person to be out when darkness had set in. The gang consisted of four men, who went about wearing masks and carrying rifles and pistols.’

Morris briefly tells of how the gang was caught, but there is a much fuller and more colourful account given in 1894 by William Furness in his History of Penrith from the Earliest Record to the Present Time. I will quote it in full:

‘A notorious gang of highwaymen and burglars infested the neighbourhood in the early years of the century, and were the terror of the country people, especially those of the villages west and south of Penrith. The names were John Woof, (Woof was taught to thieve by his mother, who put him through a staircase window, at Melkinthorpe, to rob a poor old woman of a few shilling she had saved.) Melkinthorpe; William Armstrong, Eamont Bridge; John Little alias Sowerby, Clifton Dykes; and William Tweddle, Penrith. Woof was a small farmer, Armstrong a labourer, Sowerby a swill maker, and Tweedle a labourer. For eighteen months prior to their arrest scarcely a Tuesday passed but some person, returning from Penrith market, was robbed, and in some instances left bleeding and senseless on the highway, for these scoundrels were not deterred from employing any ruffianly violence to secure their object. They went so far, in one case at least, as to dig a grave beforehand for their intended victim. This was done in Bessy Ghyll Wood, near Thrimby, for a farmer, who was attending Shap fair, and was expected to have a good sum of money with him, as a result of his sales. They had stretched a wire across the road just high enough to drag a rider from his horse, and lay waiting for their victim. Not appearing about the time that they had calculated he should, they went off in search of him. In the meantime, the farmer had providentially remembered that he had a call to make at Little Strickland, and therefore turned off the main road at Shap Beck Gate, to gain his home and make his call on the way. He had barely made his call when he found the attentions of several men were being paid him. Guessing who these individuals were, he put spurs to his steed to widen the distance between himself and his pursuers, that he might have time to open the gates that lay between him and Sheriff Park farm house. The fold gate was gained, but his pursuers were almost upon him, when a lucky idea entered his head and was instantly acted upon. He called for help, which was at one replied to, and his pursuers stopped short; he opened the gate, roused the household, and was safe. Little did these desperadoes think that the farmer both called for help and replied to the call – but in a changed voice.

Burglaries also were of common occurrence, and were carried out by masked men armed with swords and pistols.

Dockray - where Robert's family came from and where he met the robbers

Dockray – where Robert’s family came from and where he met the robbers

Under these circumstances it was considered unsafe for any man, known to have money upon him, to be out after nightfall. The occupants of houses in lonely and secluded places feared to retire to rest, unless they had a good staff of servants and plenty of defensive weapons. Least the burglars should surprise them in the night. No wonder then that the whole district was terror stricken, and that the country people hurried home form market before darkness and robbers overtook them. A relative of the writer, living at Gowbarrow Hall, had been to the Market, at Penrith, and was returning, on horseback, in the evening, when he was accosted by four men, near to Tynefield, who demanded his “money or his life”. Finding one man at this horses bridle, one on each side of him, and one on the look-out, he quietly handed up his pocket book, and was allowed to proceed, after being asked if he knew them, and made a promise that he would not follow them nor prosecute them at the imminent peril of being shot. Thinking they might be disappointed with the contents of the book, as he had only part of his cash in it, and that they might pursue and murder him in the road home, he turned in at the Bee Hive Inn, Eamont Bridge, and ordered stabling for his horse for the night, and a bed for himself, and comfortably placed himself in a cosy seat in the chimney corner. He had not been long there when amongst those who dropped in he recognised one of his assailants, who not recognising the person in the corner seat, forthwith began to tell of the latest robbery by the brutal gang of masked robbers. This ruse was adopted by the whole four, at their various resorts, to throw off suspicion from themselves, and to get to know what the public opinion of the robbers was. A price was put upon the robbers, and advertisements proclaimed the reward for their apprehension, but to no effect.

The alarm in Penrith was so great that the inhabitants voluntarily revived the “Watch and Ward” to guard the town, as in the days of border warfare. A list of names was published of householders who were willing to act, and everyone on the list served in turn, except a few gentlemen and few women householders, who obtained substitutes at 2s.6d. per night. The watchers were four each night and their rendezvous was the Ship marketing room. Each watchman, while on duty, was supplied with a rattle, and armed with a bludgeon.

Old Penrith

Old Penrith

The detection and apprehension of the gang was due Mt T Robinson, of Kings Meaburn, who had been robbed by them and beaten on the highway, but recognised one of the gang as William Tweddle, who was immediately arrested, at Penrith, and lodged in the House of Correction. This member of the gang, fearing the consequences to his own neck, turned King’s evidence and disclosed the whole proceedings of the gang. This led to the immediate arrest of Woof and Armstrong, (As Armstrong was being taken to the House of Correction, he was seen by an acquaintance named Mary Bowerbank, who accosted him thus: “I’se sorry to see thee theer, Will.” He replied: “I’ll sune clear mesel, Mary, me lass.” This incident shows how little he was suspected by neighbours and acquaintances.) But Sowerby, hearing of Tweddle’s apprehension and confession, escaped to Newcastle, where he was subsequently arrested, passing himself off as John Smith. Sowerby, Woof, and Armstrong were committed to the Assizes at Carlisle held in August 1820.

The charges against these men were numerous, but the only one they were tried upon for “burglarously breaking and entering the house of John Wilson, of Soulby, in the parish of Dacre, about ten o’clock on the night of 22ndDecember, 1819, and taking therefrom five notes of the value of £1. Or one guinea each, and four webs of cloth, the property of the said John Wilson.” Mr Rain, who acted for the prosecution, having briefly stated the case to the jury, proceeded to call witnesses. The first was Margaret Wilson, who stated that she was “wife of John Wilson; lived at Soulby, a lone house about a quarter of the mile from all others. A man came to the house on the night of 22ndDecember, and asked his way to Mark’s; others came after, and made a noise’ this was about ten o’clock. She asked what they wanted, and they said the £100 which her husband had got form the bank at Penrith, the day before. She said it was not there; they said it was, and would have it, and if she did not immediately open the door they would blow her brains out. She begged of them not to be so rough; said her daughter would give them what money they had out of the window; they replied they would not have it that way, and if they did not open the door it would be worse for them, as they knew how to get in. Witness’s husband went down, thinking it would be better, as they could make no resistance. She then opened the door. When four men rushed in; three had on smock-frocks, the fourth had on a coloured overcoat; two had pistols, two swords, and they all wore masks, but could not say what kind they were. They then asked for money, and her daughter gave them her husband’s pocket book, which contained five notes. They asked for the £100; she said her husband had left it at Penrith. They asked for the keys, and got them, and her daughter Mary went upstairs with two of them, and the other drove the family up. Her daughter did not see any of them, as she was ill in bed, but the servant saw them. Two of them searched the drawers and took 20s. in silver; they then went into another room where a chest was standing locked. They ordered her to open it, or they would break it open. They then took out three webs of linen cloth, three of tow, and one of line; then they proceeded to the servant’s room, searched her box, and took out what silver there was – 7s, or 8s. They asked her what she had been doing thirty years, to have no more than that. They took her umbrella, and went downstairs, and asked for four bottles of rum. She said she had none, and then asked if she had no liquor; she said, perhaps a little gin, and went into the parlour to get it, when two men followed her. When she took out the gin, the two reached over and took two bottles of wine and another took the gin. They then went in to the kitchen and asked for ale; she went to bring a bottle, when one of them followed her, and took another. They then demanded bread and cheese, and got it. Previous to their departure, one of them presented a sword to her breast, and drew it across her neck, as an obligation of an oath that they had got all there was in the house, and said if she would give them more money they would give back the webs; but she again said they had got all that came from Penrith. One of them asked her daughter if she knew them; to which she replied, she did not know whether she had seen them before; and he added, ‘No! and I hope you never will again.’ One of them said, on going away: ‘Go night, Mrs Wilson; we know you well enough.’ They ordered the family no to leave the house till morning. She found that two of the doors were fastened also. They made endeavours to get out, but could not, and it was eight o’clock in the morning when they were let out by a servant man.”

William Tweddle was then called, and corroborated Mrs Wilson’s evidence as to the robbery, He further said he “had known Armstrong since they were boys, Little about two years, and Woof since a boy, but the last two or three years in particular. Remembered going to Wilson’s. Armstrong proposed it, as it was likely house to get money. Woof had no mask, but the rest had black ones. Woof had nothing to disguise his face with his coat. After leaving the Wilson’s they went to Little’s house, at Clifton Dykes, where, with the assistance of Little’s wife, the booty was equally divided. He gave the information after being apprehended for stopping Thomas Robinson, of King’s Meaburn.”

James Anderson, constable, Penrith, stated that “in consequence of the information he got from Tweedle, he went to the house where Woof got his meat, and in a box, which the mistress of the house said was his, he found some pieces of cloth, one of which was marked with the words ‘John Wilson: 47 yards.’”

Several other witnesses gave corroborative evidence, after which the judge summed up, and the jury returned a verdict of guilty. The judge, in sentencing them to death, held out no hope of mercy.

Carlisle English Gate and Old Gaol

Carlisle English Gate and Old Gaol

They occupied one cell, between the condemnation and execution, and their behaviour during these days was of a shocking character. The execution – the last at the old gaol – took place on Saturday September 2nd, 1820, at the south angle of the gaol. Even at the gallows they behaved unseemly, and one of them spat in the face of the executioner. (The librarian at the Free Library, Mr John Stuart, witnesses their execution, and distinctly remembers it, though he was but a lad at the time, and witnessed the scene from his father’s shoulder.)

Tweedle was transported to Van Diemen’s Land, and eventually joined a gang of desperados, and is said to have come to a violent end. (The story of Tweedle runs thus: Having got clear away into the bush he joined a gang of freebooters. Some time afterwards, in their leisure time, the gang were recounting their deeds which expatriated them from the old country, and Tweedle was called upon for his story. After recounting his exploits which his comrades, he told of their capture and the execution of three of this gang, whilst he escaped hanging, and was transported, because he turned King’s evidence. “Traitor,” cried the whole gang, and the captain said “since he had escaped his just deserts at home, and they could not tolerate a traitor amongst them, he must suffer the traitor’s doom.” Then the gang seized him and hanged him on the nearest tree.)

Bound For Van Diemen's Land

Bound For Van Diemen’s Land

Armstrong’s sister witnessed the execution, and afterwards begged the body of her brother, which she placed in a cart she had provided for the purpose, and brought it to Barton to bury. The malefactor’s body was exhibited, by the sister, at the public houses between Carlisle and Penrith, to anyone who would pay a penny for the sight, which hundreds did. It is said that when the body was buried in Barton Churchyard, a gap was made in the wall to let the procession into the churchyard, as it could not be permitted to enter by the gate. This act speaks of the superstition of the age.’

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‘Twas strange, ‘twas passing strange; ‘Twas pitiful, ‘twas wondrous pitiful. Othello; William Shakespeare.

One cold night in 1766, a 50 year old butcher called Thomas Parker was treating his friends to a few drinks at the Cross Keys Inn in Carleton, near Penrith in Cumberland. He was on his way to his home in nearby Langwathby after a successful day at Penrith market. He had decided, like countless Englishmen before and since, to drop into the local pub for a bit of refreshment. It seems that in his high spirits he flashed his money around a bit. ‘Being somewhat the worse for drink,’ the landlord stopped serving him. He urged Thomas to stay overnight in the inn. Declining the offer, ‘the shaggy sot pressed on his way’. Not far from the inn ‘this poor muddled man’ was ‘beaten to death… after a violent struggle with the assassin’. When his body was found the next day, it appeared that the attack had been brutal and his purse had been stolen.

Three days later Thomas was buried in Saint Cuthbert’s Church in Edenhall. The parish register states:

Thomas Parker, householder, November 21st. This man was found murdered on the road from Penrith to Edenhall, near the place called Nancy Dobson’s Stone, on Tuesday night, the 18th of this instant….

The Cross Keys Inn, Carleton, Penrith

The Cross Keys Inn, Carleton, Penrith

Who had murdered Thomas Parker? Suspicion soon fell on two men who had been drinking with him: a certain ‘Lee’, who had disappeared, and Parker’s 27 year old godson, Thomas Nicholson. Nicholson was arrested on ‘suspicion’ and sent for trial at the next Carlisle Assizes. He sat in jail for ten months until his case came before the court on 22 August 1787. The evidence against him was, it seems, compelling, but it was all circumstantial. A jury today would probably have found a ‘reasonable doubt’, but not the one in 1767. Thomas Nicholson was found guilty of murdering his godfather.

English justice had often been arbitrary and was more often than not a form of social repression and control. It is true that murderers, even traitors, were no longer hung, drawn and quartered, but simple hanging was no longer deemed enough. In the early eighteenth century, there had started to be a sort of punishment inflation. People were being hanged for such crimes as simple larceny i.e. theft. Parliament decided it needed a new law ‘for better preventing the horrid crime of murder’. It felt that ‘some form of further terror and peculiar mark of infamy be added to the punishment’. In 1751 it introduced and passed The Murder Act, saying that, ‘in no case whatsoever shall the body of a murderer be suffered to be buried.’ The Act mandated either public dissection or the ‘hanging in chains’ of the cadaver. Not infrequently both.

L0016844 'Museum... in Windmill Street, on the last Day'.Remember this was the Age of the Enlightenment. An age which in the previous century had seen that ‘great’ French Enlightenment thinker Rene Descartes cutting up live animals. When they screamed in agony he told his colleagues not to be concerned because animals couldn’t feel pain as that were only ‘machines’. In England, our Enlightenment thinkers wanted to get a better understanding of human anatomy. But human cadavers on which to experiment were in short-supply. People wanted to bury their dead for simple compassionate and familial reasons and because many still believed that the resurrection of the dead on judgement day ‘required that the body be buried whole facing east so that the body could rise facing God’. The 1751 Murder Act was a welcome bonanza for the early anatomists.

The dissections performed on hanged felons were public, indeed part of the punishment was the delivery from hangman to surgeons at the gallows following public execution and the later public exhibition of the open body itself.

Hanging in Chains

Hanging in Chains

If the court decided instead to sentence the convicted murderer to ‘hanging by chains’, often called ‘gibbeting’, rather than dissection, the procedure was equally gruesome. A contemporary French visitor to England, Cesar de Saussure, wrote:

There is no other form of execution but hanging; it is thought that the taking of life is sufficient punishment for any crime without worse torture. After hanging murderers are, however, punished in a particular fashion. They are first hung on the common gibbet, their bodies are then covered with tallow and fat substances, over this is placed a tarred shirt fastened down with iron bands, and the bodies are hung with chains to the gibbet, which is erected on the spot, or as near as possible to the place, where the crime was committed, and there it hangs till it falls to dust. This is what is called in this country to ‘hang in chains’.

The chains or iron straps were designed to ensure that the body stayed upright and didn’t fall apart while it decayed and putrefied. The stinking body would often be ‘left hanging, sometimes for years, as a gruesome warning. ‘

'Chains'

‘Chains’

This was the fate to which the Carlisle judge sentenced Thomas Nicholson. He was, says the record, to be ‘hanged by chains’.

It wasn’t that hanging by chains was a new punishment only introduced by the 1751 Act. Not at all, it had gone on for centuries. All the Act did was regularise it. In fact, in the late 1600s: ‘So much highway robbery and other violent crimes were going on – and being prosecuted – that foreign travellers remarked on the great number of gibbets that lined the road from Portsmouth to London. Highwaymen and violent offenders were hanged, their corpses often dipped in tar and then suspended in irons from a post and cross-beam placed near the scene of their crimes. If they weren’t cut down by relatives stealthily in the night and secretly buried, they dangled preserved literally for years along the roadside as a gruesome warning against crime.’

Until the seventeenth century people could be gibbeted in this way while still alive. They might even be placed instead in an iron cage and left to starve. The last case of live gibbeting in Derbyshire’s Peak District happened in the 17th century on the aptly named Gibbet Moor, behind Chatsworth House:

The condemned man was a tramp. He had murdered a woman by pouring boiling fat down her throat when she refused him food. Left to die slowly in his gibbet, the tramp’s torture was drawn out when a well-meaning traveller gave him food. It is said that screams from the moors so distressed the Duke of Devonshire that he personally acted to end live gibbeting in Derbyshire.

The Murder Act had stipulated that convicted murderers were to be executed (by hanging) and then gibbeted or dissected two days after their conviction unless that day were a Sunday and then the gap should be three days. This was the case with Thomas Nicholson, who was, says the Edenhall Parish record, ‘executed and hung in chains near the same place (where the murder had occurred) on August 31st 1767’.

Beacon Hill, Penrith

Beacon Hill, Penrith

The precise place of Thomas’s execution was on the eastern spur of Beacon Hill, near ‘Cowdraik Quarry’, a place chosen so that it could be clearly seen from both the Cross Keys Inn and the town of Penrith itself. It is said there was a large crowd.

For seven months, Nicholson’s body hung in the gibbet, crawling with maggots and picked over by carrion birds, until it blew down. The people of Edenhall, perhaps feeling compassion for the man’s local relatives, gathered Nicholson’s bones into a winding sheet and buried them nearby.

Was Thomas guilty? Well it seems he likely was. His accomplice in the crime, Lee, was hung in York sometime later for other crimes. Before he died, Lee confessed to his part in Thomas Parker’s murder, saying that he was ‘the instigator and Nicholson the perpetrator’.

A spot near where the gibbeting took place was ‘long after distinguished by the letters, large and legible, ‘T. P. M.,’ signifying ‘here Thomas Parker was murdered’. It is said that here on winter nights Nicholson’s unhappy spirit appears again.

William Jobling

William Jobling

Hanging by chains wasn’t abolished in England until 1834. Poor miner William Jobling was gibbeted after his execution at Durham on the 3rd of August 1832 for the murder of a colliery owner. ‘His gibbet was erected at the place of the crime at Jarrow Slake and is described as being formed from a square piece of oak, 21 feet long and about 3 feet in diameter with strong bars of iron up each side. The post was fixed into a 1-1/2 ton stone base, sunk into the slake. Jobling’s body was hoisted up to the top of the post and left as a warning to the populace.’

The body was encased in flat bars of iron of two and a half inches in breadth, the feet were placed in stirrups, from which a bar of iron went up each side of the head, and ended in a ring by which he was suspended; a bar from the collar went down the breast, and another down the back, there were also bars in the inside of the legs which communicated with the above; and crossbars at the ankles, the knees, the thighs, the bowels the breast and the shoulders; the hands were hung by the side and covered with pitch, the face was pitched and covered with a piece of white cloth.

Twenty-one year old bookbinder James Cook became the last man in England to suffer being hanged in chains, for the murder of  creditor John Paas, at Leicester on the 10th of August 1832. ‘His head was shaved and tarred, to preserve it from the action of the weather; and the cap in which he had suffered was drawn over his face. On Saturday afternoon his body, attired as at the time of his execution, having been firmly fixed in the irons necessary to keep the limbs together, was carried to the place of its intended suspension.’ According to The Newgate Calendar: ‘Thousands of persons were attracted to the spot, to view this novel but most barbarous exhibition; and considerable annoyance was felt by persons resident in the neighbourhood of the dreadful scene. Representations were in consequence made to the authorities, and on the following Tuesday morning instructions were received from the Home Office directing the removal of the gibbet.’

In Book Twelve of The Prelude William Wordsworth wrote:

 We had not travelled long, ere some mischance
Disjoined me from my comrade; and, through fear
Dismounting, down the rough and stony moor
I led my horse, and, stumbling on, at length
Came to a bottom, where in former times
A murderer had been hung in iron chains.
The gibbet-mast had mouldered down, the bones
And iron case were gone; but on the turf,
Hard by, soon after that fell deed was wrought,
Some unknown hand had carved the murderer’s name.
The monumental letters were inscribed
In times long past; but still, from year to year
By superstition of the neighbourhood,
The grass is cleared away, and to this hour
The characters are fresh and visible:
A casual glance had shown them, and I fled..

The gibbet-mast that Wordsworth saw ‘mouldered down’ wasn’t actually that of Thomas Nicholson, although the poem refers to the place, but that’s beside the point.

Once again I would like to leave the last word to A. E. Housman, from the ninth verse of his poem 1887 in A Shropshire Lad. Note that hanging in chains was also called ‘keeping sheep by moonlight’:

 On moonlit heath and lonesome bank
The sheep beside me graze;
And yon the gallows used to clank
Fast by the four cross ways.

A careless shepherd once would keep
The flocks by moonlight there,        *
And high amongst the glimmering sheep
The dead man stood on air.

They hang us now in Shrewsbury jail:
The whistles blow forlorn,
And trains all night groan on the rail
To men that die at morn.

There sleeps in Shrewsbury jail to-night,
Or wakes, as may betide,
A better lad, if things went right,
Than most that sleep outside.

And naked to the hangman’s noose
The morning clocks will ring
A neck God made for other use
Than strangling in a string.

And sharp the link of life will snap,
And dead on air will stand
Heels that held up as straight a chap
As treads upon the land.

So here I’ll watch the night and wait
To see the morning shine,
When he will hear the stroke of eight
And not the stroke of nine;

And wish my friend as sound a sleep
As lads’ I did not know,
That shepherded the moonlit sheep
A hundred years ago.

Did a Cumbrian soldier “save England and Europe” from Napoleon?

In the mid-nineteenth century in the small Cumbrian market town of Penrith there was a public house called the ‘General Lefebvre’. Locals jokingly referred to it as the ‘General Grisdale’, after its publican, an old ex-Sergeant Major called Levi Grisdale. It seems that Levi was quite a character, and we might well imagine how on cold Cumbrian winter nights he would regale his quests with tales of his exploits as a Hussar during the Napoleonic Wars. How he had captured the French General Lefebvre in Spain, as the British army were retreating towards Corunna, or even telling of how it was he, at the Battle of Waterloo, who had led the Prussians onto the field; a decisive event that had turned the course of the battle and, it is usually argued, led to Napoleon’s final defeat.

Scouts of the 10th Hussars During the Peninsular War – W B Wollen 1905

Numerous individual stories survive from these wars, written by participants from all sides: French, British, German and Spanish. Yet a great number of these come from the ‘officer classes’. Levi was not an officer and, as far as is known, he never wrote his own story. Be that as it may, using a variety of sources (not just from the British side) plus some detailed research in the archives, undertaken by myself and others, it is possible to reconstruct something his life. Levi spent 22 years in the army, fought in 32 engagements, including at the Battle of Waterloo, rose to be a Sergeant Major and was highly decorated. There is even an anonymous essay in the Hussars’ Regimental museum entitled: How Trooper Grisdale, 10th Hussars, Saved England and Europe! This suggested, possibly with a degree of hyperbole, that it was Levi who caused Napoleon to leave the Spanish Peninsular in disgust! But the events of the Peninsular War were decisive. Many years later Napoleon wrote:

That unfortunate war destroyed me … all my disasters are bound up in that knot.

I greatly enjoyed discovering a little about Levi. What follows is my version of this Cumbrian’s life and deeds. I hope you will enjoy it too!

Levi Grisdale was born in 1783, near Penrith in Cumberland’s Lake District. He came from a long line of small yeomen farmers. His father, Solomon, and his grandfather, Jonathon, had both been farmers. They were born in the nearby small hill village of Matterdale; where the Grisdale family had lived for hundreds of years. Although obviously a country boy, Levi somehow found his way to London, where on 26th March 1803, aged just 20, he enlisted for “unlimited service” as a private or ‘trooper’ in the 10th Light Dragoons, later to become ‘Hussars’ – an elite British cavalry regiment. How and why he enlisted in the army we do not know. His older brother Thomas was probably already a soldier based at the cavalry barracks on the outskirts of Canterbury, and maybe this contributed to Levi’s decision. We know nothing of Levi’s first years in the army; but in October 1808 he, with the 10th Hussars, embarked at Portsmouth for Spain.

A Charge of the 10th Hussars under Lord Paget

The regiment, having passed through Corunna, joined up with the now retreating British army, under its Commander-in-Chief, Sir John Moore, at Zamora on December 9, 1808. Under Sir John Slade, they became part of the army’s defensive rear-guard. They arrived at Sahagun in Spain on the 21st December – just in time to take part in the tail end of a successful action known as the Battle of Sahagun. Before the battle, Levi had been made a ‘coverer’ – a sort of bodyguard or ‘minder’ – for the fourteen year old Earl George Augustus Frederick Fitz-Clarence. It wasn’t unusual for wealthy and well-connected young men to become British officers at such a tender age, and Fitz-Clarence was certainly well-connected. He was the bastard son of the future King William IV and nephew of the Prince of Wales, the future King George IV – who was the regiment’s Colonel-in-Chief.

During the battle Levi was wounded in the left ankle by a musket ball. It can’t have been too serious a wound because only a few days later he was to take part in another engagement. His exploits there were, in large part, responsible for us being able to reconstruct Levi’s story today. I will take some pains to explain what happened. The account I will present is based on numerous sources and on several eyewitness accounts; not just British, but also German, French and Spanish. There are some inconsistencies but when taken together they provide a coherent enough picture.

The British Retreat to Corunna 1808-1809

Despite the victory at Sahagun, the British army had continued its retreat towards Astorga and Corunna. But Napoleon had heard that the British were intent on a crossing of the River Esla, two miles from the Spanish town of Benavente. He sent his elite cavalry, the Chasseurs à cheval, commanded by one of his favourites, General Charles Lefebvre-Desnouettes, to cut them off and prevent the crossing. But due to dreadful weather they had been slowed down and they arrived just too late. Sir John Moore had already crossed the river on the 24th and departed with the bulk of the British army. He had, however, left a strong cavalry rearguard in the town of Benavente, and a small detachment was watching the river fords. Early on the morning of 29th December, British engineers destroyed the bridge at Castrogonzalo. When Lefebvre and his force of about 500 – 600 cavalry arrived, we are told that this was at nine in the morning, there seemed no way to cross, because the river “was swollen with rain.”

Lefebvre could see that “outlying pickets of the British cavalry were stationed along the Western bank of the River Esla.” He thought, wrongly as it turned out, that the few scouts to be seen were all that remained of the British at Benavente. Eventually he managed to find one place to ford the river and, according to one report, first sent across “a peasant mounted on a mare” to see find out what response there would be. Seeing there was none, Lefebvre crossed the river “with three strong squadrons of his Chasseurs and a small detachment of Mamelukes” – though not without great difficulty.

One account, drawing on a number of sources, nicely sums up what ensued:

The French forced the outlying pickets of the British cavalry back onto the inlaying picket commanded by Loftus Otway (18th Hussars). Otway charged, despite heavy odds, but was driven back for 2 miles towards the town of Benavente. In an area where their flanks were covered by walls, the British, now reinforced by a troop or squadron of the 3rd Hussars King’s German Legion, and commanded by Brigadier-General Stewart, counter-attacked and a confused mêlée ensued. The French, though temporarily driven back, had superior numbers and forced the British hussars to retreat once more, almost back to Benavente. Stewart knew he was drawing the French towards Paget and substantial numbers of British reserves. The French had gained the upper hand in the fight and were preparing to deliver a final charge when Lord Paget made a decisive intervention. He led the 10th Hussars with squadrons of the 18th in support, around the southern outskirts of Benavente. Paget managed to conceal his squadrons from French view until he could fall on their left flank. The British swords, often dulled by their iron scabbards, were very sharp on this occasion. An eyewitness stated that he saw the arms of French troopers cut off cleanly “like Berlin sausages.” Other French soldiers were killed by blows to the head, blows which divided the head down to the chin.

The French fought their way back to the River Esla and started to cross to its eastern bank – swimming with their horses. But many were caught by the pursuing British cavalry, and either killed or made prisoner. General Lefebvre, however, did not escape. His horse had been wounded and when it entered the river it refused to cross. He and some of his men were surrounded by the British cavalry under Lord Paget, which consisted of the 18th Hussars and half of the 3rd Hussars, King’s German Legion. During this encounter Lefebvre was wounded and taken prisoner, along with about seventy of his Chasseurs.

General Lefebvre is Captured at Benaventa. Painting by Dennis Dighton. Royal Collection, Windsor

So who was it that captured General Lefebvre? Some British sources claim simply that it was Private Grisdale. In Levi’s own regimental book we read that Lefebvre was pursued by the “Hussars” and “refusing to stop when overtaken, was cut across the head and made prisoner by Private Levi Grisdall (sic).” Other witnesses suggest that it was in fact a German 3rd Hussar, called Private Johann Bergmann, who captured the General, and that it was he who subsequently handed over his captive to Grisdale.

Any continuing mystery, however, seems to be cleared away by later witness statements made by Private Bergmann himself. His statement is corroborated by several other German Hussars who had taken part in the action, and by letters written by some German officers who were also present. Bergmann’s extensive testimony, taken at Osterholz in 1830 , is recorded in the third person. It states that there were:

three charges that day… at the third charge, or in reality the pursuit, he came upon the officer whom he made prisoner. He was one of the first in the pursuit, and as he came up with this officer, who rode close in the rear of the enemy, the officer made a thrust at him with a long straight sword. After, however, he had parried the thrust, the officer called out ‘pardon.’ He did not trouble himself further about the man, but continued the pursuit; an English Hussar, however, who had come up to the officer at the same time with him, led the officer back.

Bergmann went on to say that he hadn’t known that the officer was Lefebvre until after the action, when he was told he should “have held fast the man.” He added that he was young and “did not trouble” himself about the matter.  All he remembered was that the officer “wore a dark green frock, a hat with a feather, and a long straight sword.”

All the other German witnesses and letters confirm Bergmann’s story, but we also learn that the General had fired a pistol at Bergmann “which failing in its aim, he offered him his sword and made known his wish to be taken to General Stewart.” But Bergmann “didn’t know General Stewart personally, and while he was enquiring where the general was to be found, a Hussar of the tenth English joined him, and led away the prisoner.”

So this it seems is the truth of the matter: Lefebvre was surrounded by a German troop and captured by Private Johann Bergmann. Levi Grisdale, with the 10th Hussars, might have arrived at the scene at the same time as Bergmann or very slightly after, opinions differ. Lefebvre asked to be taken to General Stewart and so Bergmann, “not knowing General Stewart personally”, handed him over to Private Grisdale who “led the prisoner away.”

Lefebvre was delivered to the British Commander-in-Chief, Sir John Moore. Moore, who, we are told, treated the General, who had suffered a superficial head wound, “kindly” and “entertained him at his table.” He also gave him his own sword to replace the one taken when he surrendered. “Speaking to him in French”, General Moore, “provided some of his own clothes; for Lefebvre was drenched and bleeding.” He then “sent a message to the French, requesting Lefebvre’s baggage, which was promptly sent.”

Napoleon, who had viewed the action from a height overlooking the river, didn’t seem too put out by the losses of what he called his “Cherished Children.” But he was very upset when he heard of Lefebvre’s capture. He wrote to Josephine (my translation):

Lefebvre has been taken. He made a skirmish for me with 300 Chasseurs; these show-offs crossed the river by swimming, and threw themselves into the middle of the English cavalry. They killed many of them; but, returning, Lefebvre’s horse was wounded: he was drowning; the current led him to the bank where the English were; he has been taken. Console his wife.

In the aftermath of the battle, a Spanish report from the town of Benavente itself, tells us that on:

The night of the 29th they (the British) used the striking pines growing on the high ground behind the hospitals as lights, at every step coming under the fire of French artillery from the other side of the river, answered feebly by the English, whose force disappeared totally by the morning, to be replaced by a dreadful silence and solitude….

The British cavalry had slipped away and, with the rest of the army, continued its horrendous winter retreat to Corunna. Levi Grisdale and the 10th Hussars were with them.

General Charles Lefebvre-Desnouettes

General Lefebvre himself was later sent as a prisoner to England, and housed at Cheltenham where he lived for three years. As was the custom, he gave his word or “parole” as a French officer and gentleman that he would not try to escape. He was even allowed to be joined by his wife Stephanie. It seems that the couple: “were in demand socially and attended social events around the district.” Other reports tell us that General Lefebvre was in possession of a “fine signet ring of considerable value which had been given him years earlier by his Emperor Napoleon. Lefebvre used this ring as a bribe to get escape and was thus able to escape back to France, where he rejoined his Division.” This was, says one commentator, “an unpardonable sin according to English public opinion.” So much for a gentleman’s word!  The Emperor reinstated him as commander of the Chasseurs and he would go on to fight in all Napoleon’s subsequent campaigns, right up to Waterloo – where he would share the field once again with Levi Grisdale.

I have kept us a little too long in Spain. This is, after all, not the story of the retreat to Corunna, much less a history of the first Spanish chapter of the Peninsular War. After the so-called March of Death and the Battle of Corunna, Levi Grisdale was evacuated back to England by the Royal Navy – with what was left of the 10th Hussars. Here his fame started to spread. The Hampshire Telegraph of 18th February 1809 announced that Grisdale was back in Brighton with his regiment and described him as: “tall, well-made, well looking, ruddy and expressive.” He was promoted to Corporal and awarded a special silver medal by the regiment, which was inscribed:

Corporal Grisdale greatly distinguished himself on the 1st day of January 1809 (sic). This is adjudged to him by officers of the regiment.

The years passed. The regiment moved from Brighton to Romford in Essex, but was once again back in Brighton in 1812. Of this time we know little; only a few events in Levi’s life. Soon after his arrival back in England, he somehow arranged to get away to Bath, where on 29 March 1809, he married Ann Robinson in St James’ Church. Their only son, also called Levi, was born and baptized at Arundel on 12 March 1811 – sadly he was to die young. On 17 February 1813, he “was found guilty of being drunk and absent from barracks.” But, it seems, he was neither reduced to the ranks nor flogged. Other evidence suggests that the whole regiment was “undisciplined and tended to drunkenness.” Whether the leniency of his treatment was due to his record at Benavente we will probably never know.

But by February 1813, Levi, by this time a Sergeant, was back in the Iberian Peninsula, serving in a coalition army under Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, who was later to become the Duke of Wellington. With the 10th Hussars, he fought his way through Portugal, Spain and France and, so  his regiment’s records tell us, was actively engaged at the Battles of Morales, Vitoria, Orthes and, finally, at the Battle of Toulouse in April 1814. Here the British and their allies were badly mauled. But news soon reached the French Marshall Soult that Napoleon had abdicated and Soult agreed to an armistice.

And that should really have been that as far as Levi Grisdale’s military campaigning days was concerned. Yet one more chapter lay ahead. A chapter that would no doubt later provide Levi with another great story to tell in his Penrith public house. Napoleon, we might recall, was to escape from his exile on the Island of Elba in February 1815. He retook the leadership of France, regathered his army, and was only definitively defeated at the Battle of Waterloo on 18th June 1815. It has often been said that the outcome of the Battle of Waterloo “hung in the balance” until the arrival of the Prussian army under Prince von Blücher. One writer puts it thus:

Blücher’s army intervened with decisive and crushing effect, his vanguard drawing off Napoleon’s badly needed reserves, and his main body being instrumental in crushing French resistance. This victory led the way to a decisive victory through the relentless pursuit of the French by the Prussians.

It is said that Levi Grisdale led Bluecher's Prussians onto the field at Waterloo

It is said that Levi Grisdale led Bluecher’s Prussians onto the field at Waterloo

And here it is that we last hear of Levi’s active military exploits. According to his obituary, published in the Cumberland and Westmoreland Advertiser on 20 November 1855, Levi had been posted on the road where the Prussians were expected to arrive, and he led them onto the field of battle! We are also told that during the battle “his horse was shot from under him and he was wounded in the right calf by a splinter from a shell.” Finally, according to a letter written by Captain Thomas Taylor of the 10th Hussars, written to General Sir Vivian Hussey in 1829, Levi, who was a by now a Sergeant in No1 troop under Captain John Gurwood, and “who was one of the captors of Lefebvre … conducted the vedettes in withdrawing from French cavalry during the battle.

Of course, Levi Grisdale certainly did not “save England and Europe” from Napoleon. But, along with thousands of other common soldiers, he played his part and, unlike countless others on all sides, he survived to tell his tales in his pub.

What became of Levi? After he returned to England, he was promoted to Sergeant Major and remained another nine years with the 10th Hussars. When he left the army in 1825, aged only 42 but with twenty-two years of active service and thirty-two engagements behind him, his discharge papers said that he was suffering from chronic rheumatism and was “worn out by service.” Hardly surprising we might think. The army gave him a pension of 1s 10d a day. His papers also state that his intended place of residence was Bristol. He was as good as his word as and he was to become the landlord of the Stag and Star public house in Barr Street, Bristol.

Christ Church, Penrith – where Levi Grisdale is buried

Yet by 1832 Levi and his family had moved back to his native Penrith. His wife Ann died there in July of that year. It seems that Levi was not one to mourn for too long. Within about two weeks he had married again. This time a woman called Mary Western – with whom he had four children. He continued his life as a publican and, as I have mentioned, christened his pub the General Lefebvre; he even hung a large picture of the General over the entrance. During his last years, Levi Grisdale gave up his pub and worked as a gardener. He died of ‘dropsy’ on 17 November 1855 in Penrith, aged 72, his occupation being given as “Chelsea pensioner.” He was buried in the graveyard of Christ Church in Penrith.

Despite what we know about Levi’s life, we will never know what was most important to him – his family, his comrades? Nor will we know what he thought of the ruling ‘officer class’? What he thought of the social and political system that had led him to fight so many battles against adversaries he knew little about? Nor whose side he was really on? We will never know these things, though we can imagine!

As General Macarthur once said, “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.” ‘General’ Levi Grisdale certainly died but, thankfully, his memory has not yet faded away.

Sources

Mary Grisdale. Levi Grisdale. Unpublished research 2006; David Fallowfield. Levi Grisdale 1783-1855, Unpublished article. Penrith; Philip J. Haythornthwaite. Corunna 1809: Sir John Moore’s Fighting Retreat. London: Osprey Publishing 2001; Lettres de Napoléon à Joséphine, Tome Second, Paris 1833, Firman Didot Freres; Christopher Hibbert. Corunna, Batsford 1961; Michael Clover. The Peninsular War 1807-1814. Penguin Books 2003; North Ludlow Beamish. History of the King’s German Legion, Harvard 1832; Christopher Summerville. The March of Death: Sir John Moore’s Retreat to Corunna. Greenhill books 2006; Brime, D. Fernando Fernandez. Historical Notes of the Town of Benavente and its Environs.  Valladolid 1881; Wikipedia.  Battle of Benavente. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Benavente.; The Museum of the King’s Royal Hussars. http://www.horsepowermuseum.co.uk/index.html .