, , , , , , , ,

Stafford and the Militia

Numerous times in this blog I have referred to Irish people with connections to the British armed forces.[1] Many of these men and their families were involved in the Militia and passed through the Stafford Barracks. Some later settled in Stafford town. In this post I want to focus in on the Militia and the range of Irish connections linked to Militia service.

Stafford was never the site of a major army base but from 1852 to 1881 the town played host to the Second (King’s Own) Staffordshire Militia. Trained bands of local men chosen by ballot had been embodied as Militia in England at various times from 1662 onwards, particularly during the War of American Independence, the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars. Recruits were chosen initially by ballot but, if they could afford to, chosen men could pay for substitutes and get out of serving. That meant that the main body of the Militia was typically a disgruntled rabble of the roughest and poorest working class recruits.   At the close of the Napoleonic Wars such local Militias, including that in Staffordshire, were put into abeyance.[2]

The Militia was revived by the 1852 Militia Act during the international tension leading to the Crimean War. Units were raised on a county basis and filled by voluntary enlistment. Recruits would undergo initial training for 56 days and report for 21–28 days training each year. They received full army pay during training and a financial retainer thereafter which meant that the Militia particularly attracted agricultural labourers and other unskilled and casual workers. At the very least, the annual Militia training camp was the equivalent of a paid holiday, but service in the Militia was often instrumental in getting recruits to sign up for the regular army.

Militia Barracks crop

The Militia Barracks, Park Street, Stafford, built in 1852. They had accommodation for twelve families as well as offices and stores.

Stafford’s Militia Barracks were built in Forebridge in 1852 and served as the HQ, administration centre and store for the 2nd Staffordshires. They also had living quarters for twelve full-time soldiers, all sergeants, who carried out most of these tasks, together with their families. These men were almost all long-serving soldiers already pensioned off from regular service but happy to take on the intermittent and less demanding duties of Militia training. Service in Stafford barracks was, therefore, a plum posting for men at the end of their army career. Another half dozen or so serving Militia sergeants and their families lived in and around Stafford town, and these men seem to have been those staying for a longer period. In some cases they became permanent settlers in Stafford.  All this came to an end in 1881 when, under the Childers reforms, the 2nd Staffordshire Militia was incorporated as a volunteer battalion in the North Staffordshire Regiment and the Stafford location was abandoned in favour of newly-built barracks at Whittington near Lichfield.

The Militia and the Irish

In 1868, when the population of Ireland had dropped to about 17 per cent of the whole UK, the proportion of Irish recruits in the British army was 30.8 per cent.[3] This overrepresentation of the Irish came about because of the lack of jobs in Ireland and the fact that army pay was so low it was only equivalent to the lowest farm worker’s wage in Britain whereas it was still competitive with the miserable wages in Ireland. Irish recruits were therefore essential to the strength of both Irish and British regiments. During their service some managed to get promoted to the various ranks of sergeant, and that meant a significant proportion of men passing through the Stafford Militia barracks were Irish or had Irish links. We only know the identity of some of these men and their families but the 1861 and 1871 censuses offer a representative sample of this special class of military in-migrants to Stafford.

The Irish connections of these Militia sergeants took a number of forms. First, and most obvious, there were Irish-born soldiers themselves. The random sample thrown up by the census in the two years shows that of the total of 34 enumerated servicemen, sixteen (47%) were Irish-born, a considerably greater proportion than generally in the British army. This suggests that a higher proportion of the Irish decided (or were forced) to stay in Britain at the end of their service because of poor prospects back home. The British were more likely to return to their areas of origin and were underrepresented in Stafford.

Secondly, there were the Irish-born wives of the soldiers. In four cases these women were married to Irish-born men and may have had pre-existing social connections with them, but six others had married British men who they presumably met whilst the latter were serving in Ireland. The significance of the British army presence in Ireland is brought out by the third Irish connection, the number of children in these service families who had been born there. Fourteen of the families (42%) had one or more Irish-born children indicating significant periods of service in Ireland. Other children had been born whilst in garrison towns in Britain such as Chatham, Colchester and Devonport and others showed Empire service in Gibraltar, India, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

Militia families

It is worthwhile to look at some of these army families. An example of the first group is Michael Downing who was in the barracks in 1871. He had been born in Creigh near Listowel in Co. Kerry around 1825. A tall fresh-faced man, he started work as a labourer but soon joined the army at Clonakilty, Co. Cork, in May 1842. He was in the 33rd Foot (Duke of Wellington’s West Riding) Regiment and initially served in Ireland. During the 1840s he married an Irish woman, Honora (surname unknown). The birthplaces of their six known children indicate service in Tyneside (1850), Glasgow (1852), Ireland again (1855), at Colchester barracks (1858) and finally Ireland again in the early 1860s. Downing completed 21 years of service, being discharged at Fermoy in Co. Cork in 1865 as a Chelsea Pensioner with a ‘very good’ service record but no medals which suggests he never served in a campaign.[4] He immediately joined the Militia staff in Stafford and initially lived in the Barracks as a Colour Sergeant with his family. After that they decided to settle in the town and Michael made some money as a ‘writing clerk’ to supplement his pension. Descendants continued there into the 20th century. Michael himself died in 1884 and Honora in 1898.[5]

A posting to Stafford could be a reward for Crimean war service and an example is Roger Connor. He had been born in Strokestown, Co. Roscommon, in 1816 and enlisted with the 95th (Derbyshire) Regiment of Foot in 1831. I have not found his earlier service history but by 1851 he was a sergeant major at the Anglesey Barracks in Portsea, Hampshire. Shortly after that he married Jane, possibly Potter, an Irishwoman ten years younger than him.[6] That was a prelude to him being sent to the Crimean War where he fought in the Battles of Alma (20 September 1854) and Inkerman (5 November 1854) and was present during the siege of Sebastopol (October 1854-September 1855). For these actions he received the Crimea Medal and three clasps.[7] The Crimea prolonged his military service to 24 years but he was finally admitted to the Chelsea Pensioner rolls on 13 March 1855. He presumably enlisted for service in the 2nd Staffordshire Militia shortly afterwards and was living in the barracks with Jane in 1861. The couple had no children. By 1871 they had moved out of the barracks and were living at Church Aston outside Newport in Shropshire. He was acting as a ‘drill instructor to volunteers’ and was probably still on the books of the Staffordshire Militia – Newport was close enough to Stafford. The couple stayed in Shropshire and in 1881 were living at Edgmond, also close to Newport. Thereafter the trail goes cold and no record of his or Jane’s death has been found.


Sgt Roger Connor was awarded the Crimea Medal and clasps for Sebastopol, Inkerman and Alma. This is a surviving example.

In the Stafford census sample four of the English soldiers had married Irish wives. One example is Wiliam Vann. He had been born in Thornby, Northants, in 1830 and enlisted in the 32nd (Cornwall) Regiment of Foot around 1848. I have not found his detailed service record, but the 32nd Regiment was in India from 1846 to 1859 and it seems likely that Vann spent at least some time there, although there is no record of him receiving any award. The Regiment had a long history of intermittent posting to Ireland and it would seem they were there in the mid- to late-1860s because William married Ellen Walsh in Mallow, Co. Cork, in 1866.[8] He by this time was 36 years old but Ellen was considerably younger, about 21. Around 1869 they returned to the garrison town of Colchester and their son John James Vann was born there that year.[9]  Vann was pensioned off at the same time and must have joined the permanent staff of the 2nd Staffs Militia soon afterwards.[10] The family was living in Stafford Barracks in 1871 but things did not work out well for them. Ellen died in 1874 aged only 30 and as the son of serving soldier the loss of his mother must have been a severe blow to John James. It is possible that William was sent to the Militia Barracks in Newcastle under Lyme around this time because he wasted little time marrying again. His second wife was Margaret Salt who lived in Stoke on Trent, not Stafford.[11] Margaret had herself been widowed and left with two young children so the match with William was good for both parties. He accepted Margaret’s children and she presumably did the same for a time with William’s son, but by 1881 we find John James a scholar boarding at the Royal Military Asylum in Chelsea. Two years later he followed his father into the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, the successor regiment to the 32nd Foot.[12] Vann and his family had meanwhile moved to Norton barracks near Pershore, Worcestershire, where he carried out the same duties he had performed in Stafford.

Francis Sibbald’s family showed the importance Ireland could have in service lives. He had been born in 1819 in Nottingham and when he was fourteen in 1833 he enlisted at Plymouth with the 89th Regiment of Foot. Whilst based there he may somehow got to know Sophia Miller, a little girl born in 1829.[13] Sibbald subsequently went with his regiment to Canada and achieved promotion to Paymaster Sergeant, a job he continued to do for the rest of his army career. He was based at Chambly near Montreal, Québec, and on 26 April 1843 he and Sophia Miller arrived at St Stephen’s Church in Chambly to get married. Sophia was only about fourteen years old and must have lied about her age. Francis wasted little time getting her pregnant and their son John Joseph was born in August 1845.[14]  The family left Québec with the Regiment in 1847 and by 1850 Francis was serving in Ireland where his son William Francis was born. The birthplaces of their next two children in the 1861 Census indicate continuing service there during the 1850s.

Francis Sibbald was pensioned off after 21 years’ service with the 89th Regiment and got a job on the permanent staff of the 2nd Staffs Militia in the mid-1850s.[15] As paymaster sergeant, he worked under Paymaster Captain Lambert Disney, a troubled man who committed suicide in 1867 (see my posts on 14 and 19 June 2019). By then the family had left Stafford but we know Francis had worked in the Militia Barracks for nine years, a long period of service there. The family went back to Ireland in the mid-1860s.[16] Francis probably got a similar job with the army in Dublin and the family remained in the city until his death in 1877. He was buried in the Arbour Hill Cemetery which served the Royal (now Collins) Barracks.[17] After his death Sophia returned to England and in 1881 was living in London with her final child Sophia. She died on the Isle of Wight in 1885.[18]

Francis and Sophia Sibbalds’ sojourn in Stafford proved to be lengthy but ultimately uncommitted. Although ethnically English by origin, Francis’s service clearly developed a stronger link with the British army’s role in Ireland and, to that limited degree, an identification with the country. Most of their children spent formative years there and may even had a degree of Irish identity. The history of this family contrasts with a number of Irish families who came to Stafford for Militia service but settled there afterwards. Apart from the Downing family described here, earlier posts discussed other examples in the Mullins (24 November 2016) and Cronin (1 September 2015) families and there were others.

Work in the Stafford Militia Barracks

Between 1852 and 1881 many pensioned soldiers lived for a time in the Stafford Militia barracks, of whom approaching half seem to have been Irish. I have said that service in the Barracks was a plum posting for sergeants looking to continue army life after discharge. But what did these men actually do in Stafford? The answer is that they had five areas of work. They firstly had to keep up the records of men who had volunteered for Militia service and act as quartermasters for their clothing, arms and equipment. This was humdrum and quiet work for a lot of the time but it was interspersed with a second duty, that of initial training of new recruits. Then, every year in April/May, everything really came to life with the third duty, annual training of the whole Militia. The Stafford sergeants and others from surrounding garrisons were essential links in the chain of command from officers to privates. The training camp lasted 21-28 days and involved a force of battalion strength. In May 1871, for example, the assembled body numbered 22 officers, 39 sergeants and 907 other ranks as well as 24 bandsmen.[19] At the end of training the volunteers were paid off and went back to their homes with some money in their pockets and the sergeants went back to their normal duties.

In the earlier years of the 2nd Staffordshires they might, however, find themselves on a fourth task, garrison duty elsewhere. In 1856 it is noted that the Militia had covered the Portsmouth garrison whilst between 1857 and 1860 they did a tour of duty taking in Devonport, Cork, The Curragh and Dublin.[20] That force numbered 819 rank and file when they returned home in July 1860 and they were greeted by ‘several thousand people’ on the road from the station. They were not all committed men, however. In September that year one of the recruits, Peter Callaghan, an Irish labourer from Roger Square in Stafford, pleaded guilty to desertion the Militia and was fined £2 or 2 months in prison.[21] Finally, the permanent staff of the Militia played some role in the social life of Stafford town, most notably with the militia band which was available to play at local functions.[22]

Military service and the Irish

From 1852 to 1881 Stafford’s Militia Barracks played, therefore, a notable role in strengthening the Irish presence in the town. The significance of service in the army, both in the part-time and regular forces, has been little studied by historians of Irish migration. Despite the high proportion of Irish recruits in the army and their roles in consolidating state power in Britain, Ireland and the British Empire, most of these people are lost to history. Their service inevitably meant they had complex identities shaped by their Irish ethnic and religious origins but also by the ideology and discipline imposed on them by serving the British state. Others, as we have seen, were ethnically British but were influenced by service in Ireland and had technically ‘Irish’ children born there. Stafford Militia Barracks was just a small element in this system but one illustrating some of the processes at work.

[1] E.g. 19 June 2019, 24 November 2016, 17 February 2016, 1 September 2015, 10 July 2015, 16 September 2015 and others.

[2] D. Cooper, The Staffordshire Regiments: Imperial, Regular and Volunteer, 1705-1919, (Leek, Churnet Valley Books, 2003, pp. 7-13.

[3] E.M. Speirs, ‘Army organisation and society in the nineteenth century’ in T. Bartlett and K. Jeffery, A Military History of Ireland, (Cambridge, Cambridge UP, 1996), Table 15.1 and pp. 335-337.

[4] National Archives, Chelsea Pensioners British Army Service Records, Discharge Document, Box 1497, Box Record no. 200.; 33rd Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding) Regt., Wikipedia, en.Wikipedia.org/wiki/Duke_of_Wellington%27s_Regiment accessed 24 July 2020.

[5] Stafford Borough Burial Records, 05/8712, Michael Downing, ‘writing clerk’, 28 November 1884; 07/1608, Honora Downing, 22 November 1898. Both were Catholics.

[6] The only likely marriage thrown up in searches was at Glenavy, Co. Antrim, on 18 November 1852: Roger Connor and Jane Potter. Ireland Select Marriages 1619-1898.

[7] UK Military Campaign Medals and Award Rolls, 1783-1949, 95th Regt. of Foot, Sgt Major Roger Connor.

[8] Ireland, Select Marriages, 1819-1898, Mallow, 5 June 1866, William Vann and Ellen Walsh.

[9] Colchester Registration District (RD), births, Jan-March 1869, John James Vann, 4a/300.

[10] Royal Hospital Chelsea (RHC), Regimental Register of Pensioners, William Vann, 32nd Foot, admitted 2 March 1869.

[11] Wolstanton RD, Marriages, Jan-March 1876, William Vann and Margaret Salt, 6b/151. They were married on 17 January 1876.

[12] RHC, John James Vann, enlisted 1883, Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, no./Cornwall/950

[13] Sophia Miller’s birth has not been traced. In the Census in 1861 she said she was born in Devonport whilst in 1881 she said she was born ‘at sea’ which obviously might have had a maritime and military connection with Devonport. The two Census records we have for Sophia (1861 and 1881) both put her being born in 1828-9, so it remains the case that she was very young when she married Francis.

[14] Québec, Vital and Church Records, (Drouin Collection), 1621-1968. Marriage at St Stephen Anglican Church, Chambly, 26 April 1843, Francis Sibbald, Paymaster of the 89th Regt. and Sophia Miller. Baptism at the Anglican Garrison, 8 September 1845 of John Joseph Sibbald, born 18 August 1848, son of Francis Tibbald, Paymaster of the 89th Regt and Sophia his wife.

[15] RHC. Francis Sibbald was admitted as a pensioner on 9 February 1858 but he must have arrived in Stafford before then. See note 15 below.

[16] It is impossible to be precise about the dates when Sibbald arrived in Stafford and left again for Ireland. His sojourn of nine years in Stafford was reported at a prize-giving for his son Frank Wellington at the Royal Hibernian Military School in 1867 which implies the family had returned to Dublin sometime in the previous few years. Working back, that puts his arrival in Stafford in the mid-1850s. Freemen’s Journal, 20 December 1867.

[17] Ireland Burial Index, 1600-1927, (Sgt) Francis Sibbald of 22 Peven Market, aged 59. Buried 27 August 1877 at Arbour Hill Barracks.

[18] 1881 Census: 64 Pulford Street, St Georges, Hanover Square, London, Sophia Sibbald, widow, 53, Needlewoman, ‘born at sea’ and Sophia Sibbald, daughter, 10, scholar. Sophia’s birthplace was reported as Middx St Georges, London, but in subsequent censuses she said she was born in Dublin which is corroborated by the record: Ireland, Civil Births Index, Dublin South, 1871, (female) Sibbald, Mother: Sophia Miller, Father: Francis Sibbald. 2/761. Of Sophia and Francis Sibbald’s children, four sons went into the army, Sophia married a soldier and Rebecca stayed in Ireland. Only two boys went into civilian occupations.

[19] Staffordshire Advertiser (SA), 13 May 1871.

[20] SA, 21 June 1856, 28 July 1860 and 4 August 1860.

[21] SA, 15 September 1860.

[22] For example, SA, 1 February 1862 and 2 January 1864.