An Enigma

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Archdeacon the talented enigma

by Peter Conole
(edited for this site by Diane Oldman)

 James Mandeville Archdeacon was born in St James Parish, Dublin on 28 February 1833. His father Mark Archdeacon was a carpenter.

Young James became a carpenter himself but somehow heard the ‘call to arms’ and joined the 4th Light Dragoons Regiment at Island Bridge on July 18, 1850. Private Archdeacon received the regimental number 1154 and soon transferred into the 6th Company of the 11th Battalion, Royal Artillery. He started as a Gunner and Driver on the first day of 1852 and was promoted to Bombardier in November 1853.

Royal Artillery at Inkerman

Service in the Crimean War followed a year later. James displayed both valour and skill, attracting direct attention from no less a person than Lord Raglan himself. In a well-known episode of the battle of Inkerman on November 5, 1854 a strong Russian artillery position on Shell Hill caused serious problems. Two 18-pounder guns, with Archdeacon playing a stellar role in their task, linked up with some field artillery units to pound the enemy position.

The British gunners got the upper hand after a desperate struggle, raising their sights at one point to hit targets behind the Russian batteries then lowering them later to repulse an enemy infantry column. As one recent account states: “It was a turning point of the battle”. The counter-battery work had a crushing impact and hastened the Russian decision to withdraw.

Lord Raglan
Lord Raglan, Commander in Chief

James Archdeacon was slightly wounded in the wrist and face. Soon afterwards the Commander-in-Chief gave an instruction for his staff to take note of the soldier’s services: “by desire of Field Marshal Lord Raglan honourable mention is herein made of James Archdeacon who was present with the two 18-pounder guns at the battle of Inkerman…and rendered most essential service on that occasion.” Archdeacon was promoted to Corporal in August 1855 and received the Crimea Medal with clasps for Inkermann and Sebastopol and the Turkish Crimea Medal.

Although he was promoted to Sergeant in June 1856, peace-time duty at Woolwich may not have suited Archdeacon. He was court-martialled for an unknown offence and spent a week in gaol, losing his stripes in the process. But he soldiered on, survived another court martial, regained sergeant’s rank in November 1859 and signed up for a further term of nine years service in December of that year. His new regimental number was 1166.

James married Susannah Trott, daughter of London merchant William Trott, at St Paul’s Church in Deptford, Surrey on October 4, 1858. Their first son was born late in 1859, but in the following year Sergeant Archdeacon and his company went on their travels again. He took apart in the China expedition of 1860, the major event from the artillery’s point of view being the capture of the stronghold at Taku. James returned to Britain in 1861, having added the China Medal with a clasp for the Taku Forts to his decorations.

Within a few years he decided to move on and went before a Regimental Board in May 1865. The examining officers noted that his conduct had been ‘very good’ and allowed him to take an honourable discharge on June 6, 1865. As a bonus provision was made for Archdeacon to receive a deferred pension when he turned fifty. It was duly paid from June 18, 1882. The gallant veteran received the money from local authorities on the far side of the world, in the British colony of Western Australia.

James took up a position as an Assistant Warder at Millbank Prison in England, February 1866. Then in 1867, along with an undercover agent named Thomas Rowe, and two other Warders, he was appointed to assist the transportation of Irish Fenian political prisoners to the colony on the ship Hougoumont. After arriving in WA in January 1868 with his wife and two children Archdeacon served at Fremantle Prison, but took things far too easily and was dismissed on February 1, 1868 after being late for duty several times.

Millbank Prison
Millbank Prison
Fremantle Prison
Fremantle Prison

He may have earned a living over the next twelve months by working as a farm labourer just south of Perth, the colonial capital. Superintendent Gustavus Hare of the WA Police (a former army officer) then took a sudden interest in him. James Archdeacon was appointed a Special Constable on January 4, 1869, although he had to endure a prolonged wait for the position to solidify.

At this point it behoves us to mention what may have underpinned some of our subject’s difficulties both in the army and later. Those problems remain something of an enigma, as officials seem to have been reticent to spell things out plainly. It is possible that periodic bouts of alcohol overuse were at issue.

Whatever the circumstances, James Archdeacon became a Constable on November 2, 1870. He probably spent his time as a ‘special’ in Perth. After confirmation of permanent status he received transfer to the riverside police station of Canning. James did well and won appreciation and respect from the local community. When settlers heard a rumour about the possible closure of Canning station they sent a petition to the Colonial Secretary on July 24, 1871, asking that Constable Archdeacon not be removed. They got their way and he served in the district until about 1873. James was promoted to Corporal in January 1876, by which time he had already been shuttled back to Perth.

The Whaler Catalpa

The year became a turbulent one. With the collusion of local sympathisers and agents in the USA and the colony, a number of Fenian prisoners made an escape by sea on an American vessel called the ‘Catalpa’. Because Archdeacon knew the Fenian prisoners well he was sent to Fremantle port and joined the hunt for the escapees in April 1876. He was among a party that went out on the steamer ‘Georgette’ to try and intercept the ‘Catalpa’. Nothing could be done as the ship reached international waters and sailed on to the States. The incident generated further tension that year, notably an obscure attempt by American adventurers to occupy some islands in the far north of WA. The colonial authorities promptly ejected them and the US government backed down.

Archdeacon was a capable policeman and received cash rewards for excellent work six times between 1872 and 1878. In addition there is plenty of evidence that while serving in the Police Force he also did a sterling job training companies of the local Volunteer Defence Force (militia). The WA Volunteer Horse Artillery came into existence in January 1873 and James Archdeacon won appointment to the position of Sergeant Major and drill instructor. The local press followed his activities with interest, presenting us with an amusing May 1877 account of how he put aspiring Horse Artillery officers through their paces amidst pouring rain in the very centre of Perth.

The police even sent him south to act as drill master for the newly raised Wellington Mounted Volunteers at Bunbury in June 1877. He impressed officers and men alike and received a formal address of thanks plus gifts from the company after completing his tasks on October 27 of the same year. Archdeacon’s work for the early WA defence establishment attracted nostalgic press comments as late as the 1930s.

However, Superintendent Matthew Skinner Smith of the WA Police had doubts about Archdeacon during the officer’s early years of service, twice cancelling his promotion to Lance Corporal. Rather ironic, as former army officer Smith’s career paralleled that of Archdeacon – he too had distinguished himself in the Crimean War and China. James became a Lance Sergeant in January 1877 and continued to gain favourable notices and cash rewards for good policing work in Perth and Fremantle. He was then transferred east to the country town of York in March 1879. Disaster followed – for some reason he was dismissed on May 24, 1879.

Mills of Jarrahdale
Mills of Jarrahdale

After his removal from the Police Force Archdeacon obtained employment as a gaoler at Perth Prison for about a year. From early 1880 he worked as a time-keeper and supervisor at the Jarrahdale Timber Company’s mill. James suffered a severe hand injury whilst organising work on a circular saw in May of the same year.

Despite some past sins he rejoined the WA Police as an acting 1st Class Constable on August 1, 1889 and, regardless of his advanced age, received a posting to the north-western port town of Derby. The following summer proved to be a very ‘sickly season’ in our wild north. An acute water shortage caused wells to become stagnant, generating a typhoid epidemic. Archdeacon’s strength started to fail and he received a transfer back to Perth because of ill-health on June 10, 1890.

He was placed on a ship bound for Fremantle, already delirious with a fever and ‘sinking fast’. Three younger officers at Derby who became seriously ill at around the same time managed to recover. Archdeacon made it back in time to receive better medical care, only to die in the Perth Hospital on August 2, 1890. The official notice of Archdeacon’s transfer was not issued until 20 days after his death – a good indication of communication problems of the era.

The colonial career of Crimean War hero James Archdeacon was a florid and erratic one, complete with a tragic ending. The pattern may be seen as fairly typical of a colourful and creative period in WA history, particularly in the realm of law enforcement. The old Crimean warrior’s spouse long outlived him and some of his descendants made their mark in assorted walks of life.

Royal Hospital Chelsea Soldiers Service Documents 1760-1913, National Archives.
Census Records of England & Wales, 1861, National Archives.
Crimean War Medal Roll 1854 -1855, WO100/23, National Archives.
China Medal Roll 1842-1860, WO100/40, National Archives.
Birth, Marriage & Death Records, General Registrars of England & Wales and Western Australia.
Record of Service, WA Police.
Bicentennial Dictionary of Western Australians, Rica Erickson, University of Western Australian Press 1988.
Warders and Gaolers: a Dictionary of Western Australian Prison Officers 1829-1879, David J. Barker, Western Australian Genealogical Society, 2003.
The Crimean War: a clash of empires, I Fletcher and N Ischchenko, Spellmount Ltd.
Officers of the Western Australian Defence Force, 1861-1901, J R Grant, John Burridge Military Antiques, WA 1988).
Grandfather was a Policeman, Mollie Bentley, Hesperian Press, 1993.
Policing our State, E R Pashley, Educant, WA 2000.
Newspapers: Western Australian Times, May 18, 1877; Inquirer & Commercial News, November 14 1877; West Australian August 3, 1936.

© Diane Oldman 2015