by Frank E Earp
As I write these words, the Nation is about to celebrate the 200th anniversary of one of the most significant events in its history, ‘The Battle of Waterloo’. Waterloo is seen as one of those great pivotal points in history, a deciding moment where the future of not only Great Britain but that of all Europe and indeed the World, hung in the balance. There will be many accounts published in the coming days and months that will describe the battle and its protagonist in various degrees of detail and it is not my intention to add further to the collection. My description of the battle is intended as a scene setter for what is to come later.
As always mine is an account which focuses on the roll played by the people of Nottinghamshire in this epic event. This then is the story of John Shaw and Richard Waplington, known collectively as the ‘Cossal Giants’, – who both fell at Waterloo, – and Thomas Wheatley, – who return home to tell his own tale. It is also the story of a unique memorial to their memory which, stands in a quite corner of St Catherine’s churchyard Cossall.
People’s Hero: Foremost of the three men is Corporal John Shaw of the 2nd Life Guards. If the Duke of Wellington was the ‘State Hero’ of Waterloo, then John Shaw was the ‘People’s Hero’. Such were Shaw’s exploits at Waterloo, he went on to inspire the next generation of fighting men of Queen Victoria’s reign. However, Shaw’s part in the battle was no greater than that of others of his regiment including his friend and fellow ‘Giant’, Richard Waplington. It is perhaps the fact that as a champion Prize Fighter, Shaw was already a National celebrity before ever he left England for the field of Waterloo.
Waterloo: The Battle of Waterloo was fought on Sunday 18th June 1815 some 11 mile from Brussels near the Belgium village of Waterloo. On one side was an allied army of around 68,000 British, Belgium, Dutch and German troops commanded by Sir Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington. Later in the day, Wellington was joined in the field by a Prussian army of over 40,000 men led by Marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher. Opposing them was a 72,000 strong French army commanded by the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.
The Field of Waterloo: Wellington, who had led a successful campaign against Napoleon in the Peninsula War, had taken up a defensive position either side of the main Brussels road on a ridge of high ground to the south of Mount St Jean. He had anchored his right flank by fortifying the large château of Hougoumont. His left flank was in and around the Hamlet of Papelotte. At his centre, in the valley bellow the ridge along side the road, he had also fortified a farm house by the name of La Haye Sainte. Here, Wellington awaited the arrival of the French. Napoleon’s approach to Waterloo the night before the battle, was from the south along the Brussels road. Napoleon halted his march at a road-side Inn called La Belle Alliance. This was to become his headquarters and the centre of his lines.
Napoleon’s mistake: The night before the battle there had been a tremendous storm with heavy rain fall which had waterlogged the ground between the two armies. Napoleon made the fatal mistake, – (the first of many that day), – of waiting until mid-morning for the ground to dry-out before beginning any action.
Attack on Hougoumont: Considering Hougoumont to be the weak point in the Allied lines, at around 11am, Napoleon decided to opened the battle with a cannonade and an hour later with an infantry assault against the château. He believed that Wellington would weaken his position by sending troupes from his centre to support the defenders at Hougoumont. However this was not the case and the château resisted wave after wave of French attacks through-out the day and became something of a side-show to the main battle.
Shock and Awe: By around 1.30 pm Napoleon realised that his diversionary tactic had not worked and the allies had not moved from their position on the ridge. He ordered Marshal Ney to attack Wellington’s centre and left. Ney brought up 74 guns and immediately began to pound the allied lines with shot and shell. The cannonade was later described by veterans of earlier battles, as the heaviest they had experienced. With cannon balls skipping and bouncing through files of men and shells exploding among the ranks, the fire was beginning to take its toll. Wellington ordered the bulk of his forces to retire to the reverse slope of the ridge and to take cover by lying down. After half an hour, the bombardment suddenly stopped and a few moments later the air was filled with a different noise. A roll of drums like the sound of thunder echoed across the valley floor and up the sides of the allied ridge. It was accompanied by the cry of over 18,000 voices sounding as one; “Vive l’Empereur!” and “Vive la France!” The drum roll then changed to a constant and rhythmic ‘rat-ta, tat, tat’. This was Napoleon’s ‘Shock and Awe’, his signal to the enemy that his invincible army was on the move. Indeed, this was the case. Supported by ‘heavy cavalry’, the French infantry of D’Erlon’s corps were advancing along the Brussels road towards Le Haye Sainte and the ridge beyond.
“They came on in the same old way and we defeated them in the same old way.” (Wellington).
To all but the British veterans of the Peninsula, the rat-ta, tat, tat, of the drums must have been a dreadful sound as it drew ever closer. The French knew it as ‘Le Pas De Charge’. It was the rhythm sounded by mass corps of drums which had so terrified the armies of all Europe. The British veterans however, contemptuously called it ‘Old Trousers’, for they knew it meant that the French were ‘coming on in the same old way’, – and to paraphrase Wellington, – they would ‘defeat them in the same old way’. That ‘old way’ was to attack in a massive, densely packed column, propelled at a rapid march by the Pas De Charge. After the preparatory cannonade, the massed columns would smash into the enemy line like a giant hammer blow. Pursued by French cavalry, the fleeing enemy would be cut down and Napoleon would have another victory. However, at Waterloo this was not to be the case. Waiting to meet Napoleon’s attack were the British veterans who’s experience in the Peninsula meant that they knew how to stop the juggernaut of the French column. Their ‘same old way’ was to pour volley after volley – (up to 3 rounds per minute) – of trained and disciplined musketry into the densely packed ranks. This time it would be different, it would be French infantry fleeing from the swords of cavalry.
William Turners sketch of La Haye Sainte, Waterloo, from the North with La Belle Alliance in the Distance .
Sir Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington.
Our real story does not begin on the field of Waterloo, but some 384 miles to the north west in the Nottinghamshire village of Cossall. It is after-all, the story of ‘The Cossall Giants’ John Shaw, Richard Waplington (Dick Wap), and Thomas Wheatley. Cossall is the village they all called home. Beginning with Shaw, it is time then, to tell their stories. But before I do, at this time of National ‘commemorations’ of the 200th anniversary of the battle, I offer what I think is an appropriate line from the pen of Major Knollys, taken from his book about Shaw and other ‘Heroes of Waterloo’: “We are not, therefore, surprised to learn that, in these days of commemorations and statues, Shaw has not been forgotten…..”.
John Shaw: Shaw was born in the parish of Wollaton, in a farmhouse between Wollaton and Cossall, some time in December 1789, (his baptism in Wollaton church is recorded as 3rd January 1790). His father, William Shaw, was by all accounts a prosperous farmer and soon after his birth, moved the family to the old manor house which once adjoined St. Catherine’s church Cossall. It would seem from contemporary accounts that young Shaw was a sickly child as the local doctor declared to his father that he was ‘out growing his strength’ and ‘nothing but a liberal supply of new milk would save his life’. William apparently responded by setting aside a cow from his herd pacifically for his son’s needs. When he was old enough, Shaw was given a tin mug and allow to run to his cow as many times a day as he wished, until, we are told, ‘he dispensed with the mug altogether’. Are we to assume from this that he got his needs straight from the udder? Whether or not it was his milk diet, clean country air or just his genes, Shaw, like a young Hercules, grew rapidly. In a few short years he was, for his age, the tallest and strongest boy for many miles around.
School Bully: When he was old enough Shaw, or Jack as he was familiarly known was sent to a school on Trowell Moor, which was ran by a man named Newton. As an historian, sometimes when researching you have to ‘read between the lines’ to get a true picture of your subject. Our ‘Jack’ it seems was always ready with his fists, eager to take on and knock down all comers. Knollys and others refer to him as being ‘naturally of a pugnacious disposition’. Without wishing to besmirch a National Hero, I would call him a school bully with what is today referred to as ‘anger management problems’. Certainly, we would not describe Jack Shaw as a ‘gentle giant’.
Failed apprenticeship: At the age of 13, Jack left Mr Newton’s school and was bound apprentice as a joiner and wheelwright. As with all apprentices Jack went to live at the home or workshop in of his ‘Master’ in Radford (just a few miles from Cossal). It is more than certain that, as was customary, William purchased Jack’s apprenticeship at great cost to himself. This would have been a good start in life for his son and something fortunate for a boy at this time to have a father with enough money and foresight to do so. It wasn’t long however, before Jack’s ‘pugnacious disposition’ once again raised its head. In Knollys’ words; “….the scrapes he got into with other lads caused words between him and his master, until at last his indentures were given up, and he returned home to Cossal”.
Labourer: We can only imagine the words exchanged between father and son when Jack returned home. In a close-knit, small community news of the failed apprenticeship would have spread and Jack would have found it difficult to find other skilled work. It’s therefore no surprise to find that Jack’s next job, which lasted until he enlisted in the army, was as a labourer on the Wollaton Hall estate of Lord Middleton. Here, we are told, he put the skills learnt in his brief apprenticeship to good use ‘repairing gates and fences, and doing other rough carpentry work’.
Richard Waplington: We will leave John Shaw there for a time and take up the story of Richard Waplington (‘Dick Wap’), for the lives of the two men run parallel for a time before coming together at Nottingham’s ‘Goose Fair’. Richard or Dick as he was familiarly known, was born in Cossall sometime in 1787, – making him some two years Jack Shaw’s senior. Little is known of his parentage and early life save that he went to the same school on Trowell Moor as Jack. It is likely that the two lads from the same small village already knew each other, but at school they seemed to have become firm friends. Although he was the younger of the two, we might assume that given his nature, Jack would have been the dominant personality.
Coal Miner: Unlike Jack, Dick was not fortunate to have a father wealthy enough to purchase an apprenticeship for him and when at the age of 12 or 13, he left school, he went to work in one of the local collieries. For the young miners of this time, life was hard with 12 to 15 hour days toiling deep underground. At the end of each working day as part of their wages, for domestic use, each miner was allow to carry home on his own head, a lump of coal as large as he could manage. It is little wonder then that Dick, already a tall strong lad grew into a giant of a man.
Michaelmas 1807: In 1807, Nottingham’s annual Michaelmas Fair, The Goose Fair, held in the Market Square, was much like any other before it. A mixture of market stalls and entertainment, the Fair attracted both young an old from many miles around. One of the ‘booths’ which was probably attracting a lot of attention was that of the army recruiting officer, (usually a Sargent). It was common to see such booths at fairs and markets and the Goose Fair had a reputation for being a fruitful recruiting ground with many a Nottinghamshire taking the King’s Shillings at previous fairs. The British Army (and Navy) IN 1807 were engaged in the war against Napoleon’s France and there was a particular need for willing volunteers. Among the young men milling around the booth that day were two friends 20 year old Dick Wap and 18 year old Jack Shaw. How or why they were persuade to enlist we will never know, but enlist they did. Both standing over six feet tall with broad muscular frames, they were seen as ideal candidates for one of the elite cavalry regiments of the Army, the 2nd Dragoon Guards. As one of the Household Regiments in peace time they were part of the Sovereigns body guard on duty outside Royal palaces and as escorts on State occasions. In war they were ‘shock troops’, big men on great black horses. From the moment the two friends joined the regiment, even amongst these mighty warriors they were known as The Cossal Giants.
Nottingham’s Goose Fair. (Note the boxing match taking place in the left foreground)
‘Artist Model’ Part of a nude portrait of John Shaw by the artist William Etty (1787 -1849).
We move now to the last of our trio of Heroes of Waterloo, Thomas Wheatley. As much as he played his part in the Battle of Waterloo, Wheatley’s story is not one of daring deeds and heroic death. Thom Wheatley was a man of his day and his life was lived against the backdrop of the history of the time, of which he played his own part. That history was not only the war against Napoleon’s France, but the Stocking Weavers Strike, the Luddite Riots in 1811 and the Reform Riots of 1831.
Thomas Wheatley: Thom Wheatley, the son of a ‘stocking weaver’, was born in Cossal (Marsh) in 1795 and was therefore the youngest of our trio. Until the age of nine, he was educated in a room above the almshouses in Cossall village. On leaving school he was apprenticed into his father’s trade. By all accounts the young Thom was a hard and loyal worker, dedicated to becoming a ‘journeyman weaver’ like his father. All might have gone well with Thom and he would have lived an ordinary undistinguished life, until that is, in 1811 the combined forces of fate and history intervened.
Stockingers: In the late 18th early 19th century, the textile industry and in particularly stocking weaving was a dominant trade in the East Midlands. Until the early 1800’s, the trade was largely ‘domestic’ with ‘frame-work’ knitters or ‘stockingers’ as they were called, working for a manufacturer in their own home on what was usually a rented ‘stocking-frame’ machine. It is likely that when apprenticed, Thom’s found himself living and working in the home of a stockinger like his father. By 1759, Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire had 90% of the Country’s stocking frames with an estimated 14, 879 in Nottinghamshire alone.
Luddites and Strike: At the beginning of the 19th century changers in fashion and the increasing introduction of some larger, factory based steam powered frames, saw a decline in the living standards of the already impoverished traditional stockingers. By 1810/11 the frustrations of the Nottinghamshire stockingers boiled over into strike action. More direct action by a group known as the Luddites, began in Arnold, Nottinghamshire on the 11th March 1811, (but that, as they say, is a subject for another time).
A Riotous County: Nottinghamshire was at the centre of the civil unrest caused by the Luddites and this again is reflected in Dick Wap’s story. Prior to their departure for the Peninsula Champagne, the Duke of Wellington accompanied King George III on an inspection of the ‘Household Regiments’. According to Knollys whilst riding along the ranks of the 2nd Life Guards, Wellington and the King stopped before Richard Waplington. Calling him from the ranks the King reputedly asked Dick which part of the Country he came from. Dick replied “From Cossall in Nottinghamshire your majesty”. Upon hearing this the King turned to Wellington and said, “He is a very fine soldier, but he comes from a riotous county”.
From Stockinger to Soldier: The very nature of an industry where workers worked independent of one-another, made strikes difficult to manage and maintain. For his own reasons Thom’s father refused to take part in any strike action and continued to toil at his frame in secret at night. This caused great offence to Thom, who still only 16, thought that his father’s actions would only help prolong the strike. Knollys takes up the story; “Thomas so far forgot himself as to fire at his father with a loaded pistol. The father fortunately moved his head at the moment and the ball went through the window-shutter, where the hole remains to this day”. Regretting his action or fearing the consequences, Thom fled the scene and feeling unable to return, readily enlisted into the army. History does not record whether father and son were ever reconciled.
23rd Light Dragoons: It was thus that Thom found himself in the 23rd Light Dragoons a regiment that had already distinguished itself at Talavera in the Peninsula Campaign. Although classed as ‘light cavalry’, technically dragoons were mounted infantry, capable of fighting on-foot as well as on horse-back. The 23rd were one of the first regiments rushed out to Belgium for the Waterloo Campaign. On the 15th June 1815 the 23rd were in the rear-guard of Wellington’s retreat from Quatre Bras and were the last regiment to withdraw from the action at Genappe. The regiment were engaged in actions throughout the day at Waterloo and accompanied the army in its march on Paris after the battle. Due to Government cuts in defence spending following the Napoleonic Wars, the 23rd were disbanded in 1818.
Home to Cossall: Thomas Wheatley returned home to Cossall, as Knollys puts it, ‘with honours and a pension’. Either unable or unwilling to find work as a stockinger, Thom was employed as a ‘hammerman’ at the blacksmith’s forge of the Babbington Colliery Company. There his story might have ended, but history was not done with Thomas Wheatley yet.
Riots and the Battle for Wollaton Hall: As an ‘old soldier’ Thom was retained as a member of the local voluntary defence force, the South Nottinghamshire Yeomanry Cavalry, (given his experience, probably as an N.C.O.). At this date, without a proper police force, Yeomanry Regiments acted in defence of domestic security. It was under the Colonel of the South Notts that Thom was to see his last action, but this time it was to be on home soil and against an enemy with whom he probably shared a cause. In June 1831 the long awaited Reform Bill was carried in the House of Commons, only to be rejected some four months later by the House of Lords. Nottingham was filled with visitors to the Goose Fair and when on the 9th October, news of the Bills rejection reached the Market Square on the London Mail Coach, trouble broke-out almost immediately resulting in the worst mass violence and rioting the County has ever seen. On the 10th Oct. the crowd again assembled in the Square and spurred on by reformist speakers went on to ransack and loot Colwick Hall and to burn down Nottingham Castle the home of the hated anti-reformist, the Duke of Newcastle. In response the South Notts were mobilised and having ridden in through a stormy night from their various troop assembly points, were ready for action on the 11th. However, the Yeomanry failed to stop the mob burning down a Silk Mill in Beeston, but were on-hand to prevent destruction to Lord Middleton’s home Wollaton Hall. Middleton had armed and garrisoned a group of his loyal miners at the Hall and together with the Wollaton Troupe of the South Notts, – of which Thom was a member, – the Hall was well defended. The gates were forced open and as the rioters pored in they were met by a charge from the Yeomen, who afterwards managed to take many prisoners. Sporadic rioting continued until the 16th when the violence subsided. The 21 officers and 274 men of the South Notts had done their duty well over the six days they had ‘been in the saddle’.
Final words: I could find nothing more about the life of Thomas Wheatley in any of the historic accounts. I’ll conclude his story by saying: “The last years of his life were spent in the almshouses at Cossall, and his ashes rest in the Churchyard of his native place”.
Young stockinger sitting at his stocking frame.
Sergeant, 23rd Light Dragoons. The uniform worn by Thomas Wheatley at Genappe and Waterloo.
The most celebrated of the three names engraved on the white marble memorial in St Catherine’s churchyard Cossall, is that of John (Jack) Shaw. After the victory at Waterloo, one of the most decisive battles in European history, the people of this country needed their heroes to worship. Not just Wellington, the great Duke himself, but ordinary men who had made the victory possible with extraordinary deeds. When reports and accounts of the battle began to circulate, there were of course many names of ordinary men to choose a hero from. But one name would have stood out from the rest, that of Corporal of Horse John Shaw. The people had already heard that name before. In the peoples eyes he was already a hero as John Shaw the Pugilist.
Shaw the Pugilist: Jack Shaw’s reputation as a pugilist has been grossly neglected in written accounts and certainly, in his home county of Nottinghamshire he should be ranked alongside ‘Bendigo’ (William Thompson). Jack began his boxing career long before he ever donned the uniform of the 2nd Life Guards. Ever the ‘scrapper’ at school the young Jack Shaw showed he had a talent with his fists. This talent was first truly recognised in a professional sense in 1805, by James (Jem) Belcher, bare-knuckle prize-fighter and Champion of All England. The story goes that at the age of 16, Jack engaged in a prize-fight with a local man much older and three stone heavier than himself. After several rounds Jack was getting the worst of it and his strength was beginning to fail. Suddenly, a voice rang out from the crowd of spectators: “Youngster, do not give in, fight slow and careful, and you are sure to lick him as my name is Jem Belcher”. This encouragement from the Champion of All England must have greatly effected Jack, for acting on Jem’s advice, he went on to win the fight. There are no further accounts which show that Jack continued his fighting career in the two years between this fight and his enlistment in the Life Guards in 1807. Prize fighting was a very popular sport during the early 19th century and Nottingham’s Goose Fair would have been full of both official and unofficial ‘prize rings’. Given the fact that Jack and his friend Richard Waplington both enlisted at the Fair, it is extremely likely that Jack was there literally looking for a fight.
Jack’s training and military exercise as a Life Guard increased his natural talent and ability as a fighter. Soon after joining the regiment he is described as being just over 6′ tall and nearly 15 st. in weight. His ready willingness to use his fists is attested to by a famous story which tells of an incident which took place outside the barracks near Portman Square in London. Three thuggish rouges were shouting insults at passing soldiers, that is until Jack stepped in and soon sent all three sprawling in the gutter.
It was customary for officers in the Household Regiments to encourage the ‘Noble Art of Boxing’ among their men and a chosen few within the ranks were actively sponsored to go on to greater things. Such was the fate of Jack Shaw and arrangements were made for him to ‘spar’ at London’s leading boxing hall, Fives Court in Little St. Martin Street. Success at Fives Court prompted his commanding officer Colonel Barton, to send him to Jackson’s Rooms (Saloon), 13 Bond Street London. This was a fashionable club and boxing academy established in 1795 by the then Champion of All England, ‘Gentleman’ John Jackson. Here Jack came under the tutorship of Jackson himself. Fighting (with gloves) under the nickname ‘The Milling Life Guardsman,’ he went on to defeat; The African American boxer, Tom ‘The Moor’ Molineaux’. – ‘Captain Barclay,’ Robert Barclay Allardice, the well-known and reputedly best amateur boxer in the country. In what was his only recorded defeat, all but it being a close one, Jack went up against Tom Belcher, (younger brother of Jem Belcher) at The Royal Tennis Court, London, during Tom Cribb’s proprietorship. Despite being defeated in this contest, Jack was on his way to the championship. On 12th July 1812, at Coombe Warren, Kingston Upon Thames, Surry, Jack climbed into the ring to face his first official bare-knuckle prize-fight. His opponent was a West-countryman named William ‘Bill’ Burrows, an experienced prize fighter. In 13 rounds contested over 17 minutes, Burrows was soundly beaten whilst Jack was totally unscathed.
Peninsula War: Although he was now a contester for the English Championship, Jack was still a trooper in the 2nd Life Guards and his boxing career was interrupted by his military duties and the war against Napoleon in the Peninsula. On the 27th October 1812 the Household Cavalry were posted to Portugal as part of the reinforcements for Wellington’s planed Spring Offensive of 1813. The day before landing in Lisbon, Jack was promoted to Corporal of Horse, – a rank equivalent of Sergeant in regiments outside the Household Division. The nature of the fighting and terrain in the Peninsula meant that there was little need for Heavy Cavalry and Jack and his comrades saw little, if any action. After seven years of fighting, peace finally came to the Iberian Peninsula and the rest of Europe in 1814 with the signing of the Treaty of Paris and Napoleon’s exile to Elba. The 2nd Life Guards returned to their barracks England, except that is Corporal Shaw who had been given the job as orderly to Lt. Colonel William Ponsonby. Ponsonby’s duties took him to Paris to make preparations for the Congress of Vienna.
Mortal foes: Whilst in Paris with Ponsonby, in one of those ironic twists of fate, Jack had his first encounter with those who were to become his mortal foes at Waterloo, French Cuirassiers. Jack was chosen to give a display of swordsmanship to 8th and 11th regiments and was given as a reward officer’s epaulettes by the French General Guitan
Return to the ring: Returning to England Jack resumed the rank of trooper and continued his boxing career. On the 18th April 1815, before a large crowd gathered on Hounslow Heath, Jack for the second time entered the prize ring as a bare-knuckle fighter. This time his opponent was Edward ‘Ned’ Painter. In a fight that lasted 28 minutes Painter was knocked down 10 times and totally vanquished. It was at Hounslow that Jack was to issue the challenge to all comers for the Championship of England. It was also to be his last ever fight as a pugilist, his next would be a fight for his life at Waterloo. But all that was not known at the time and sporting fans all over England were looking forward to the inevitable fight between ‘The Milling Life Guardsman’ and the retired, undefeated champion Tom Cribb.
The second fight between Tom Cribb and Tom ‘The Moor’ Molineaux’, Thistleton Gap, Rutland, in 1811.
Corporel of Horse, John Shaw in the uniform of the 2nd Dragoon Guards.
It was Easter 1815 and following his victory over Ned Painter on Hounslow Heath, Jack Shaw and his friend and comrade in arms Dick Wap, were home on leave in Cossall. In an interview many years later, a native of the village, Mr Buxton, remembered how proud the villagers were to have the two Life Guardsmen home. At a time when the average height was much less, they were proud too that both men over 6′ tall, should have earned the nickname ‘The Cossall Giants’. This was the last time that both men were to walk the native soil. The Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte had escape from Elba and on the 20th March 1815, triumphantly enter the gates of Paris. Once again war now loomed and Jack and Dick were recalled to their regiment to face the inevitable clash of arms that was to come.
The Cossall Giants at Waterloo: Jack Shaw and Dick Wap returned to their regiment where Jack was once again promoted to the rank of Corporal. On the 1st May 1815 they sailed for Ostend where the 2nd Lifeguards formed part of the Household Brigade under the command of Lord Uxbridge. At the start of the campaign the Lifeguards were ordered to Quatre Bras but arrived the 16th June when the fighting was over. On the withdrawal from this action the 2nd formed part of the rearguard whilst Wellington’s army was passing through Genappe. Although there is no evidence that the regiment saw any fighting that day, there is a story that Jack was wounded in the chest and ‘ordered to the rear’ to receive care. Having had his wound dressed, he retuned to his regiment feeling a little inconvenienced.
Creating a hero: Waterloo is one of those battles which seared its memory onto the pages of history. On all sides, many of those who took part, both private soldiers and officers, wrote their own accounts of the days events. Those of the retuning victorious British soldiers were eagerly snapped up by a waiting audience at home. These various accounts have one thing in common, they were all witnessed through both the literal and metaphorical ‘fog of war’ and with out doubt many were embellished with every retelling. Considering this, when reading accounts of Jack Shaw’s actions at Waterloo, it is hard to extract fact from fiction and the man from the myth.
Before the battle: An account of Jack before the battle began, paints him in rather a bad light. It was customary for soldiers to be given rum – to give them ‘Dutch Courage’ – before going into action. Reputedly, together with a couple of Troopers, Corporal Shaw was sent to fetch his Troop’s rum ration. According to one eye-witness the three men were seen liberally helping themselves from the contents of the small barrel. This might explain the fact that more than one account says that Jack’s later heroism was fuelled by alcohol. Another account has Jack in-charge of a foraging party. They had chanced on a small farmhouse or cottage where a woman and her daughters had hidden themselves in the loft. Under shouts of protest from the women, they were busy emptying the contents of milk and cheese from the dairy, when they heard the sound of the first cannon shot heralding the start of the battle. Abandoning their ‘booty’ Jack and his men rushed to join their regiment arriving in-time for the first charge.
Heavy Cavalry: At the start of the battle the Household Brigade, consisting of, 1st and 2nd Life Guards, the Royal Regiment of Horse Guards, (Blues) and the 1st King’s Dragoon Guards, was station to the west of the Brussels to Charlroi Road in the rear of the British centre. To their left was a second heavy cavalry brigade, the Union Brigade consisting of the 1st Royal Dragoons, 2nd Royal North British Dragoons (Scots Greys) and the 6th Dragoons (Inniskillings).
Charge: By the time Jack and his men had regained their ranks, it is likely that the French attack on the British centre was already under-way. French infantry columns of D’ Elron’s Corps engulfed the farm house of Le Haye Sainte and it’s King’s German Legion defenders as they passed and continued up the slope of the ridge. Supporting the infantry on their left was the Cuirassiers, – breastplate wearing heavy cavalry, – of Travers brigade. The French would not have been aware of the 2,332 sabres (officers and men) of the two brigades of heavy cavalry waiting just behind the brow of the ridge. The focus of their attack was the British infantry of Picton’s Division which, along with the rest of the Allied lines, had suffered the French cannonade some half hour earlier. Picton’s men, having fired in volley, charged the French columns, – Picton being one of the first to be killed in the attack. At this crucial moment, Henry Paget, Earl of Uxbridge, ordered the two heavy cavalry brigades to charge. The Union brigade, coming to the aide of the Picton’s infantry charged into the French columns sending them fleeing back towards their own lines.
Shaw in action: Once again Jack Shaw was to demonstrate his swordsmanship to the French Cuirassiers, only this time in battle and not on the parade ground. The 1st and 2nd Life Guards smashed into the Cuirassiers, the effect being like ‘an irresistible force meeting an immovable object’. Some of the Cuirassiers fled the field whilst others stood their ground. One such was a Cuirassier who openly challenged Jack to single combat. Jack immediately accepted the challenge and rode forward to meet him. The Cuirassier swept his sword forward in a low blow. In the ring, Jack would have called ‘foul’, but parrying the cut, he brought his heavy sword down on the man’s helmet, cleaving his head in half such that his ‘face fell off like a bit of an apple’. Eight more Cuirassiers now challenged Jack and each in their turn was easily despatched. The last man called out in English with an Irish accent “Damn you, I will stop your crowing”. He too fell like the rest. Intermingled with their foe, the life Guards now pursued the Cuirassiers back to La Haye Sainte where they were stopped by the mass of fleeing French infantry and pursuing British Cavalry.
Dick Wap: There now followed a series of actions, – chargers and counter chargers. Somewhere amongst these actions we have our only account of Jack’s fellow Cossal Giant, Dick Wap. The account is by a veteran of Waterloo, Thomas Crooks. Crooks was an Ilkeston man and may have known Dick by sight. Temporally in possession of a French Eagle,, – the blessed standard of every French Regiment, – Dick was overwhelmed by Cuirassiers and was never seen again.
Jack’s Last fight: We now come to the end of Jack’s story of which there are several versions. All agree that in one of the melees which followed the first charge, Jack became cut-off from his fellows and surrounded by ten or more Cuirassiers. Jack fought bravely with his sword until the blade snapped. Throwing the hilt at one of his foes, Jack ripped the helmet from his head and wielding it like a medieval weapon fought on. One version of the story has him brought from his horse by a myriad of sword cuts, whilst another says it was a carbine shot to the shoulder. When the action around him had passed over, mortally wounded, Jack managed to crawl to the wall of La Haye Sainte. Here, he was joined by a wounded comrade who found him sitting on a dung heap with his head in his hands. On seeing the man Jack looked up and said; “Ah, my dear fellow, I’m done for”. Jack’s comrade exhausted, fell asleep. Next morning, when he awoke he found him cold a dead, still sitting in the same position.
Corporal John Shaw in action against French Cuirassiers at the Battle of Waterloo.
Monument: The Waterloo Monument which stands in St Catherine’s churchyard Cossell, is unique among village war memorials in Britain. It’s story begins in the summer of 1875 with a news paper report – The Ikeston Pioneer, – dated 3rd June. The report records the death of Samuel Wapplinton; “….the last of fifteen children, and the last of the name for generations known in the place (Cossall) born in 1798”. Samuel, the article goes on to inform the reader, was the brother of Richard Wapplington, the Dick Wap of Waterloo fame. It goes on to mention John Shaw and Thomas Wheatley, Cossall men, who together with Dick at Waterloo. It further mentions the fact that Wheatley, or Tom as the article calls him, lies in an unmarked grave in the churchyard. The article concludes with an appeal for a memorial to the three men; “Would it not be an act of grace to place some memorial in the beautiful village sanctuary, or in ‘God’s acre,’ to these humble, noble heroes?” The article prompted swift action and a committee of eight, mainly family and friends of the three, was formed to oversee the purchase and erection of a memorial. With donations from many local landowners a dignitaries as well as ordinary people, an initial fund of £100 was quickly raised. The resulting edifice is a tall white marble column encircled by a laurel wreath. The base is a white marble block carved in the Roman fashion, with trophies of war, which here consist of the helmet and breast-plate of a French Cuirassier over two crossed swords. Appropriately, the site chosen for the monument was the unmarked grave of Tom Wheatley. It was unveiled to great acclaim by the then High Sheriff of Nottingham, Mr. Rolleston on the 18th June 1877, (62nd anniversary of the battle).
Mystery of Shaw’s Skull: Confusion reigns over a rather macabre memento from the Battle of Waterloo, the skull of John Shaw, which was once exhibited in various museums in England. Just when and by whom the skull was exhumed and what became of it, have become matters of a bizarre mystery. Using several of the many reference sources, I have here attempted to unravel the mystery and conclude my account with what I believe to be its current resting place.
The skull: The skull, – minus the lower jaw, – is described as being of robust appearance and 22” in diameter around the forehead. The two front teeth are/where missing and the remainder being large and prominent. At sometime after its arrival in England a plaster-cast was “made by his comrades”. In a recent phone call to the archivist at the Household Cavalry Museum, Windsor, I was informed that at least two plaster-casts were made – one is currently on display in The Household Cavalry Museum, London and the other is retained by the Gentleman’s Club mentioned bellow.
When was the skull exhumed?: John Shaw’s body was buried at La Haye Sainte by his comrades on the 19th June 1815, the day after the battle. An adult corpse buried without a coffin, takes on average between 7 and 12 years to decompose into a skeleton. Given the fact that the skull was already skeletal remains, it could only have been exhumed, depending on the rate of decay, sometime between 1822 -1827 or after 1827.
Who exhumed the skull?: There are two candidates for being the person responsible for exhuming Shaw’s skull and returning it to England. The first of these is novelist and poet Sir Walter Scott. He is reputed to have become somewhat obsessed with Shaw after a meeting with the Life Guardsman at the studio of Benjamin Haydon and as a sporting man of his time, followed his boxing careerer avidly. On hearing the news of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, Scott was the first civilian tourist to visit the battlefield. More than one account states that it was Scott who arrange for Shaw’s ‘remains‘ to be exhumed “a few years after the battle” and personally retained the skull in his library at Abbotsford. However, the current label on the plaster-cast now on display in the Household Cavalry Museum, reads: ‘….but his skull was recovered and returned to England where the novelist Sir Walter Scott, excited by the drama of the battle, also had a plaster cast made of it’.
The second candidate is Admiral Sir Alfred Ryder son of Henry Dudley Ryder, Bishop of Lichfield and Coventry. Something not noted by other writers on the subject is the fact that Ryder was both a member of The Church of England’s ‘Purity Society and The Royal United Services Institution. The latter was set up by ‘Royal Warrant’ by Wellington as a Government military think tank. In an addenda to the 4th edition of Knollys book published in 1885, its editor J. Potter Briscoe states that he viewed a human skull purporting to be that of Shaw on display at the private museum of the R.U.S.I. The label to the exhibit read; ‘Skull of Shaw, the famed Life Guardsman who fell at Waterloo, procured by the Late Admiral Ryder’. Again however, this presents a mystery, as Ryder did not die until 1888. He goes on to say that he was informed by an attendant at the museum that the skull had been in the possession of the museum for some 60 years, putting a date of 1825 for its acquisition. He further states that he was informed that Ryder himself had the skull exhumed and brought back to England. This however is an impossibility as the good Admiral would have been only five years old at the time.
Sometime around 1887 or before, Shaw’s skull seems to have been given over to the keeping of a private museum of a ‘Gentleman’s Club’ which was not open to the public. In 1898 the Club moved to new premises at the Banqueting House, Whitehall, in London. The then curator of the museum, General R. Maltby, seems to have had concerns over exhibiting any form of remains of what he calls ‘a British soldier’. He expresses his concerns and more in a letter, – dated 26th May 1898, – to the then incumbent of Cossall Church, Reverend H. C. Russell; “I am writing privately to ask you if it would be possible to place the skull of John Shaw the Life Guards Man who was killed at Waterloo under, or adjacent to the Memorial to him, and Tom Wheatley of the 23rd Light Dragoons created in Cossall Church yard. The reason I am asking for information is, that John Shaw’s skull has been in our museum for the last 11 years in our old quarters, the Public were not admitted, but now we have come over to the Banqueting House Whitehall the Council don’t think it very seemly to have on view the skull of a British Soldier & would like to find some suitable resting place. It would be very kind if you would let me have your views on the matter, I think it is essential that whatever is done should be done quite”. The reply to this letter has not survived, however, a note attached to the original dated 19th March 1918, presumably in the Reverend Russell’s hand tells how the matter was dealt with; “This skull was buried by me June 21st 1898 in Wollaton church close to the pillar near the font – in the presence of W. Harwood and Alfred Meats.”
Here is something that all other writers on the subject of Shaw miss. Taken together, the letter from Maltby and the attached note by Russell indicates that the two men, – ‘acting on the quite’, – found a suitable final resting place for the skull. At least some part of the mortal remains of Corporal of Horse, John Shaw, lies in his native soil in St. Leonard’s Church Wollaton, – ‘close to the pillar near the font’.
The Plaster-cast of the skull of John Shaw on display in the Household Cavalry Museum London.
Early photograph of ‘The Waterloo Monument Cossall’.