A collaborative story by Glenn Fisher, Crimean War Research Society Chairman (2020)
and Diane Oldman, of a deserter to the Russians
James Lithgow was born in Liverpool, Lancashire in February 1832, son of James and Isabella, baptised in the parish of St Peters (as Lythgoe) on 19th June 1832. At the time the family were living at Parry Street, Toxteth Park, Liverpool. James had at least three siblings: John, David and Alice.
Lithgow had a brush with the law before joining the Army when charged at the South Lancashire Spring Assizes with cutting and stabbing Alice Jones with intent to do grievous bodily harm. The offence apparently originated in a family quarrel. ‘Alice’ is almost certainly Lithgow’s younger sister who, as a minor, married Henry Jones in Liverpool in June 1846. The incident occurred in early 1851 and Lithgow was sentenced to nine months imprisonment. He is recorded in the 1851 census in the Kirkdale House of Correction, occupation sawyer.
James Lithgow had a short and eventful military career which, despite its brevity, had a profound effect on his life. He enlisted into the 14th Regiment of Foot at Shrewsbury on 13th May 1853. His details were recorded. He was 5 ft. 9 ins. tall, 21 years and 3 months of age and received a bounty of three pounds and ten shillings. There is a note in the 1st Muster column next to his name in form 8 ( Recruits) of the muster book. The note presages what was to characterise his career as a soldier; it reads ‘Forfeited 2 days pay. Cells 7 days’.
When Lithgow enlisted the regiment was at Limerick. He was on the pay lists from 7th June 1853 with a regimental number of 3125 and as soon as he joined them he appears to have fallen foul of military law and discipline. The following month he is recorded as forfeiting two days’ pay and being in the Guard room for 12 days from 11th to 22nd September and in the District Military Prison from 23th to 30th September. The following quarter sees him forfeiting another day’s pay, serving a further seven days in the cells and then being confined in the District Military Prison for 50 days from 1st October to 19th November 1853. These confinements were presumably all related to his District Court Martial on 17th September 1853 for ‘Drunk, escaping, damaging cells’ for which he was sentenced to 84 days with hard labour and stoppages. Clearly Lithgow’s start with the 14th Regiment of Foot was not a happy one.
At the beginning of 1854 Lithgow appears to have kept out of trouble. There is nothing in the records next to his name except his location. From January to March he was at Clare Castle. When war with Russia was declared a large number of men were given the opportunity of transferring from the 14th Regiment to the 47th Regiment on its way to the East. Lithgow was one of them . He was on the strength of the 14th until 20th May and then onto the pay lists of the 47th from 21st May . The place where he became ‘non-effective’ with the 14th Regiment was recorded as Malta. The other detail related to him was that his trade on enlistment was again ‘sawyer’.
With his new regiment he acquired a new regimental number: 3244. But it is clear that his poor regard for the rules and regulations continued in the old way. Whilst the regiment was at Scutari and Varna Lithgow was ‘Absent without Leave’ on the 4th and 5th June 1854. When the Army was at Varna there are no details recorded in the quarter July to September.
The medal roll for the 47th Regiment shows that Lithgow was present at the Battle of the Alma on 20th September and Inkerman on 5th November 1854. The regiment was part of the 2nd Brigade (Adams), 2nd Division (De Lacy Evans).
The next quarter, from October to December went badly wrong for Lithgow. He was tried by Court Martial for being ‘Drunk and Disorderly’ on 6th October 1854 and sentenced to 50 lashes. 3143 Private William Dwyer of the same regiment was also convicted of being ‘Drunk on Picquet’ and received the same punishment. Both were prisoners in the Guard House from 2nd to 7th October. Lithgow was back in the Guard Room again on 21st November and tried again by Court Martial on 29th November for ‘Disgraceful Conduct’. He was sentenced to 50 lashes again but this time 25 lashes were remitted and he was to forfeit all his allowances. Between these two dates Lithgow had been present at the Battle of Inkerman and had survived.
On 11th December 1854 Lithgow deserted along with 3143 William Dwyer, 2752 Robert Crawshaw and 3125 David Wiltshire. All, except Wiltshire, had been confined in the Guard House from 2nd to 6th October and that is perhaps where their plan to desert was hatched.
Desertion was a fact of life in the Army. The pages of the muster books have forms that are specifically designed to monitor the loss and return or capture of deserters. Desertion on campaign though was a more serious offence and desertion to the enemy a foul and unforgivable crime.
Sergeant George Newman of the 23rd Royal Welsh Fusiliers was captured at Inkerman on 5th November 1854. His recollections were published in the 20th century under the title ‘Prisoner of the Voronesh’. Newman describes some of the deserters in his writing. Of Lithgow he wrote: ‘ We had many deserters arrive now and there was one among them of the name of Lithcoe (sic), a regular scamp. He was a great bully and the men did not have anything to do with him, for he was a large and powerful man. He was a tremendous thief. Nothing was safe from him. He often stole the poor fellows’ bits of clothing and was sure to make off with any sheepskins that were put outside to air unless there was a good watch put on them. He was flogged once or twice, but it did not stop him and, at last, he was given over to the Russian Police for robbing a man of my regiment of a pair of wellington boots and some sheepskin coats of other people’s. I think he was the most foul-mouthed man I ever heard, and I was glad when a resolution was passed in our room not to allow him in, and we never left our room without two or three to watch it and the contents’. From Newman’s account and from Farquharson (4th Light Dragoons), who was also a prisoner, the deserters were despised by the British Prisoners of War and their Russian captors. When the time came to repatriate the prisoners in an exchange in 1855, the Russian authorities provided a list of some 61 names of British soldiers and sailors who had remained in Veronesh as deserters. Lithgow’s name and regiment were on the list. William Dwyer is also listed. There is a ‘Robert Crozier’ of the 47th also listed but this is most likely an alias used by Robert Crawshaw. There is no ‘Robert Crozier’ in the regimental muster lists.
Lithgow reappears in the records having been tried by Court Martial on 7th May 1856 for ‘desertion to the enemy’ and was sentenced to transportation for life. He was handed over to the civil authorities for the execution of the sentence. His name appears in the register of convicts for Chatham Convict Prison for the September quarter 1857. He is number 963, his behaviour is described as ‘very good’ and in the remarks column it states ‘Australia per Nile 4 Sept. ‘57’.
Let us jump ahead for a while, to when Lithgow had reached his destination. He was once again in a court of law, at the Quarter Sessions in Perth, Western Australia. This time he was a witness for the Crown Prosecution in a charge against Sapper John Cameron. On 9th July 1859, Lithgow was under examination for three hours, and part of his testimony related to his own noble service. This is his version of the tale of his desertion:
I have been eighteen months in the colony. I came by the Nile. … I have been a soldier of the 47th Regiment, was in the Crimea during the whole of the war. I was taken prisoner by the Russians at Balaklava, after the battle of Inkermann. I was taken to Feronis about 2500 versts from Sebastopol. I was allowed to go freely about that town; from there I was sent back and exchanged at Odessa, when I went back to my regiment before Sebastopol; this was after peace had been proclaimed. I was taken into custody and tried by court martial for desertion from the British Army to the Russian service, and transported for life. … I did not break my allegiance. I did not desert. When I was taken prisoner it was very bad weather, and we had not tents to put our heads in. I was under fire at the Alma, Balaklava, and Inkermann.
The Judge was not impressed saying, …the great question for them [the Jury] to decide was, whether the prisoner at the bar was that felon he was represented to be, by men who were themselves felons. The Jury, without leaving the box, returned a verdict of Not Guilty. His Honor expressed his concurrence and said, the convict witnesses for the Crown ought to be prosecuted for perjury.
The convict ship Nile was built in Sunderland in 1849 and weighed some 763 tons; her Captain on Lithgow’s voyage was W. Johnson. Lithgow embarked with other convicts from Chatham on 18th September 1857. The ship sailed on to Spithead to pick up more prisoners from Portsmouth and eventually left Plymouth bound for Western Australia on 23rd September 1857. The voyage lasted 100 days and two of the 270 convicts died during the journey. The Nile stopped at Bahia, Brazil, on the way and eventually arrived at Fremantle, Western Australia on new year’s day 1858. The records related to this consignment of convicts (nos. 4508 to 4777) give more details about Lithgow. He is described as aged 24, a sawyer, height 5 ft. 9.1/4 ins., hair: brown, eyes: hazel, face: full, complexion: sallow, build: middling stout. Distinguishing marks: A. B. man right arm, crucifix left arm, cut left eyebrow.
The popular image of the Australian convict is one of a sullen individual in Victorian prison garb chained together with other felons breaking rocks in the unforgiving sun and heat. The reality however is different. The records from the Convict Establishment (Fremantle Prison) show that Lithgow was granted a ‘Ticket of Leave’ on 23rd July 1859. They also reveal that he was a semi-literate Protestant and unmarried. He was allowed to work at large in Toodyay, Fremantle and the Canning and Swan districts of Western Australia. The ‘Ticket of Leave’ enabled the convicts to work for others or for themselves in a prescribed area. Despite some restrictions it was a world away from a chain gang. ‘Lifers’ like Lithgow could never return to England and this remained the case after receiving his Conditional Pardon on 7th June 1873.
Lithgow was a frequent ‘media star’ as he continued his wayward activies: charged with breaching his ticket of leave conditions on more than one occasion; a victim of assault while drunk; stealing cash and rations; drunkedness; breach of contract; and finally as a witness for a supervisor charged with neglect at an old people’s institution.
Lithgow was an orderly at Mt. Eliza Depot, an institution in late 19th century Perth for destitute men. In 1906 Claremont Old Men’s Home was built to replace it and Lithgow more than likely made the transition from working to retirement in one or other of the old men’s homes. Around this time, HM Indian Government offered pensions to survivors of the Indian Mutiny who were in old people’s homes and asylums in the care of the WA Colonial Government. How and why this ultimately included collecting details of veterans of not only the Indian Mutiny but the Crimean, Maori, China, Egypt and even Boer wars is a mystery. James Lithgow’s name appeared on the ‘little list’. As can be seen by Lithgow’s entry, the destitute old men were not required to be accurate in their reporting!
Lithgow died in the Claremont Home on 15th November 1909 of heart disease aged 77, and was buried in Karrakatta Cemetery. According to his death certificate he never married nor had children.
War Office Records, The National Archives, Kew
WO12 Musters & Pay Lists 14th and 57th Regiments of Foot
WO28 Military Headquarters (Crimea 1854-1856)
WO86 Judge Advocate General’s Office, District Courts Martial
WO90 Judge Advocate General’s Office, General Courts Martial
WO100-30 Medal Rolls.
Convict Establishment (Fremantle Prison after 1867) Records, WA State Records Office
Acc 1156-CS5 & 6, M2 & M32 Medical
Acc 1156-R6. Acc 1136-3. Acc 1171-1. Acc 720-30/31 and more Tickets of Leave
Many of these records are online at ancestry.com.
Newspaper Records, British Newspaper Archives & National Library of Australia
Liverpool Mail 5 Apr 1851; Liverpool Mercury 4 Apr 1851
Perth Gazette 15 Jul 1859, 4 Apr 1862, 3 Oct 1862, 17 Mar 1871, 27 Mar 1874
Western Australian Times 27 Oct 1874
West Australian 10 Aug 1898
These records have been digitised by Findmypast.com and NLA (TROVE).