500 lashes for a deserter but officers were admired at the ball
The ball attended by officers was like Pride and Prejudice but brutality and disease killed many men.
Herods Foot in Jarvis Lane, once an officers' quarters, is all that
survives of the Steyning barracks
Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice seems to describe many a small town of the period. The younger Bennet girls occupied their minds with thoughts of the soldiers stationed in the neighbouring town of Meryton. Jane Austen’s novel was published in 1813 - exactly the same time that troops were in barracks on the edge of the quite similar town of Steyning.
In the same way that there was a ball at Meryton attended by the Bennets and some officers, there was also a ball at Steyning in April 1808. It was held in The White Horse Rooms, with a newly built music gallery. The occasion, “was attended by upwards of fifty of the principal inhabitants of that town and neighbourhood and by several officers of the Garrison there.”
There is a particular mention of Lieutenant Hamilton who, “had greatly endeared himself by his urbanity of manners and gentlemanly demeanours.” It does sound so very like Pride and Prejudice.
The incorrigible Mrs Bennet was as excited by the prospect of all those marrigiable young officers as her teenage daughters. The memoirs of James Rooke, born in 1805, tell a different story, revealing a mother's concern to guard her daughters for fear of an army marriage*:
“When I was small we were always expecting the French to land, and my mother would say, "Don't go far away, boys; the French are coming."
“At Annington the plate was kept ready packed in case of invasion, and a man used to come round and measure the ovens so as to see what capabilities there would be for bread-making in case soldiers should be billeted in the neighbourhood. Steyning was a garrison town, and if there was dread of foreign soldiers, those at home had to be watched by mother who had marriageable daughters well dowered. The young ladies of the county families had to be guarded from the officers, who were not gentlemen as most officers of the army are now.”
Life for the ordinary soldiers was very hard. There would have been constant drilling and iron discipline. There is even evidence that part of their training involved wading up to their waists in the sea off Shoreham, before marching back to Steyning - presumably still soaked to the skin.
Punishments were brutal. A soldier at Lewes, for instance, was given 450 lashes for stealing meat. Possibly to avoid this sort of punishment, men would desert. Desertion seems to have been fairly commonplace. A newspaper reported in 1808 that, “the Northumberland Militia leaves Steyning for Lewes. They leave a good opinion in Steyning, only four soldiers having deserted but were recaptured.”
There is a local tradition, repeated in books and articles about Steyning, that one soldier buried in the churchyard, James Day, was flogged to death. If there was a reason for this barbarity, it is now unknown and is all the stranger because the words on his headstone suggest that James was a good lad. The inscription reads: “This stone was erected by his comrades as a small tribute of respect due to a worthy youth like him.”
There is a possible explanation. Only a day before James Day’s death on 3rd June 1804:
“Thomas Heath, a Private in the North Hants Militia [the same regiment as James Day] who deserted from Lewes and about a month since surrendered himself at Salisbury, being escorted back to his regiment at Steyning, was tried by Courts Martial and sentenced to receive 500 lashes; 200 of which were inflicted and so impressively that, to avoid the remainder, he deserted a second time, but was captured, lodged in Horsham Gaol, and taken back to his regiment.”
The remaining lashes endured by Thomas Heath might well have caused his death. But it does seem that the punishment inflicted on Thomas Heath could have become confused in the public memory with the death of another young soldier, James Day, from the same regiment at the same time.+
Whatever the truth, it is clear that the common soldiers had to endure much harsher conditions than the officers. Steyning church burials alone indicate that in one year disease and brutal discipline killed seventy young men in the supposed safety of the barracks.
*Thanks to Roger Bateman and Brian Roote and the
Shoreham History Portal website - see links on the right
+Thanks to Marion Woolgar for this observation