Mother of the Regiment

In November 1893 a banquet was put on in Cardiff with the intention of demonstrating an appreciation for army veterans of South Wales and the Monmouthshire district. The idea had been formed just a few months previously by Sergeant Thomas Foster, late of the 41st Regiment, and himself a veteran of the Crimea War. He had done so because he, and many others, were dismayed at the lack of appreciated for veterans, particularly in the aftermath of the Crimea and Boer Wars, among others.

It was quite a task, as over three hundred old, and more-or-less infirm men, had to be brought together from all parts of South Wales and billeted in Cardiff for the night. Not only that, they were expected to march through Cardiff to Park Hall where the banquet was to be held. There, they were entertained with speeches, music and numerous VIPs including Welshman General Sir James Hills-Johnes, who had served with the Bengal Army, and had won a Victoria Cross for an act of bravery. It was he who drew attention to the only woman there, as a veteran, 72 year-old Mrs Annie Snape, ‘the Mother of the Regiment.’ A woman who, Hills-Johnes said, ‘should be preserved in history among those soldiers who had helped to preserve to us our Indian Army.’

Intrigued, the Evening Express [1] and The South Wales Daily News sought out this ‘Mother of the Regiment’, and without their interviews Annie’s name would not, as Hills-Johnes had wished, been preserved.

They found Annie at 41 Hirwain Street, Cathays where she was staying with relatives. The Evening Express joining her in a little snug room on the ground floor at the rear of the house, where she was ‘plying her needle and thread’, now her means of earning a living.

Annie was not that keen on being asked for an interview, and was reluctant at first to Anniegive any information possibly because she had just had ‘a bad attack of influenza’ and this was her first day downstairs. And when the South Wales Daily News asked for her memories she replied, ‘Oh, my good gracious, I never can recollect when I try to. It’s only when we’re chatting together that past things come back to me.’

However, Annie relented, and the ‘short and redundant’ woman ‘her dark, almost swarthy, face’ ‘mobile, expressive, and very intelligent’ agreed to give a few details about her life.

She was born in Madras (now Chennai) on the north-west coast of India in c1821, at a time when her father was serving in the 41st Regiment of Foot (becoming the 41st Welch Regiment of Foot in 1831) and she was, she said, ‘bred and born in the 41st’. She does not mention her mother, who must have died, because she was left an orphan at five, her father having died with the regiment in Burmah during the First Anglo-Burmese War of 1824. Annie was left alone to be ‘brought up by the regiment’. She does not give her father’s name either, so at this time her maiden name is unknown.

At sixteen she married Sergeant Cherton, or Cheston,[2] also of the 41st, and they spent twenty-one years in India.  Although in 1842, four years after their marriage, ‘he was away on the Afghan campaign,” said Annie, “but the women were left behind at the depot. It was different in those days to now. The men could march, and there were not the present means of getting to the front by railway, so I have no experience of the hardships they had to undergo.’

During the ‘Indian Mutiny’, now called the ‘Indian Rebellion of 1857’, her husband was with the staff in the north of Ireland, but when he died Annie went back to the regiment in India, and married a second time to Sergeant Snape.

“I’ve got two boys,” she said, whose father was probably Sergeant Cherton/Cheston as she didn’t marry Snape until 1865, when she would have been about forty-three, and Snape had died just twelve months after they were married. And at the time of her interviews her sons were pensioners having both ‘been though the regiment’.

Around 1875 Annie went with the 41st to Aden. ‘It’s about the hottest place they’ve been in,’ she said, ‘and I was very ill with fever; but not one of our men died, and only one woman.’

They were in South Africa at the time of the Boer War in ’81 but didn’t take part, because peace was proclaimed. “I joined them there in ’83,” she said, “I was also eight months with them in Cairo, and it was then I came home.’

She spent two years in Portsmouth before moving to Swansea and then to Cardiff.

‘But yours is, I hear,’ said the South Wales Daily News, ‘the longest experience of the regiment? In fact, they call you the mother of it.’

‘Oh, yes. All the men call me the mother, and the new drafts used to style me grandmother. The short service system has taken away nearly all those whom I knew in A, and they are, I expect a new lot now.’

 

When the South Wales Daily News reporter asked if she was well provided for she replied, ‘Well, I can’t say I am. General Sir Hugh Rowlands is kindness itself, but, apart from his generosity, I get nothing.’

‘Won’t the regiment do anything for you?’

‘Yes, I hope so. What I want to do is to get back to quarters, and then I shall be happy again.’

The 41st, called the Welch Regiment as of 1881, had recently returned from India and were in Pembroke. They had, she said, wanted her to stay with them, and if she could she would be joining them in Pembroke.

In both interviews, Annie expressed her regret at leaving her beloved regiment. ‘Colonel Kirk told me I was an old fool when I left, and I believe I was. In the regiment I had every kindness shown to me, and I wanted for nothing, but still I thought I’d try civilian life.’

‘With what result?’

‘Well, I haven’t felt settled since, and at Swansea, where I tried staying for a while, because I had friends there, the yearning for the sight of a red coat was too much for me. I left and came home, and I’m living with one of the old 41st now, so it seems more like home.’

‘Yet,’ said the journalist, ‘you feel there is ‘no place like home’ outside the regiment?’ to which Annie agreed.

She had not been able to join the veterans on the march through Cardiff prior to the banquet in 1893 because she had been ill with influenza, and so General Hugh Rowlands went to see her. He had been colonel of the regiment when she nursed two of his children in Simla (now Shimla), the summer capital of British India. The 41st were not with them but up country suffering severely with cholera. She said it did her good to meet General Rowlands again.

There was another unnamed Colonel who wrote to her once a year, so she hadn’t lost touch with the company. She received no pension, but, she said, as ‘long as I was with it I was one of the regiment without the man’s pay.’

She concluded sadly, ‘civilian life doesn’t suit me, after 65 years with the colours.’

On 5 November 1894 there was another memorial dinner in Cardiff this time for veterans to commemorate the anniversary of the Battle of Inkerman (1854), part of the Crimea War. Annie was there and had another opportunity to speak to General Rowlands.

The following year the regiment was due to receive new colours, and so the old ones, along with their Crimea colours, would be removed from a church in Wrexham and hung in Llandaff Cathedral alongside a memorial tablet. And the south Wales veterans were once again invited to parade through Cardiff trooping the colours prior to a banquet. It does not record if Annie was in attendance, but a Mrs Crawford was, the wife of Quarter master-Sergt. Crawford – and she had been with the regiment for fifty years. General Rowlands was there, one of the VIPs, but just two months later he died and was buried in Llanrug near Carnarvon.

Nothing more is heard of Annie after 1894. It is not known why she was not at the 1895 celebrations, and at this time, it is not known when and where she died, although one census record suggests 1901.

One can only hope she did make it back to her beloved regiment and died, as she had been born, with the colours.

 

[1] An identical article appeared in the Western Mail

[2] The Evening Express says Cherton but the South Wales Daily News says Cheston

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