Thomas Tole, Russian Deserter
by Guest Writer, Glenn Fisher, Chairman of the Crimean War Research Society
with additional input from Diane Oldman
Thomas Tole was born in Manchester around 1834 of Irish parentage. His father, Joseph , was a weaver and in the 1841 census the family are recorded as living in the St George district of the city. They are written as the ‘Toole’ family by the census enumerator. Thomas is recorded as being 8 years old. He has an elder brother, James, aged 13 and a younger brother, John aged 6. There is also an infant, Edward, aged 11 months. Some time later in the 1840’s the family moved to the Ancoats district of Manchester and resided at 98 George Leigh Street. This area of the city was heavily industrialised with towering cotton mills and mean back to back hovels for the spinners and weavers and their families. The infant Edward died at home there in August 1848 . Diarrhoea was recorded as the cause of death.(1) In April of the following year Thomas’s father, Joseph, died there of chronic bronchitis.(2) In the 1851 census, their mother, Ann, now a widow, is recorded as the head of the family. The family name is spelt ‘Tole.’ James, Thomas and John as well as an 8 year old younger brother, Francis, are all ‘piecers’ in a spinning mill.(3) Their job was to patrol the steam powered spinning mules and repair lines of spun thread if they were broken. The work would be noisy, dangerous and repetitive.
Thomas Tole enlisted into the 7th Regiment of Fusiliers at headquarters in Manchester on 8th September 1853. He is described as being aged 19 years, 5 ft. 8¼ ins. tall and it is noted next to his name that he is ‘in confinement’ and ‘absent prisoner’.(4) One can speculate that Thomas Tole’s career as a soldier may have been a stark alternative to prison for some civil offence.
Thereafter Tole’s progress shows nothing but trouble. He is recorded as in confinement from 22nd September until release on 13th October.(5) After just over a week Tole went ‘absent without leave’ from 22nd to 23rd October. A month later he was written down as a deserter from 23rd November 1853.
He re-joined the regiment on 30th January 1854.(6) By 3rd February he was facing a court martial for desertion and loss of necessaries for which he was sentenced to 84 days hard labour and branded as a deserter. He was confined during February and March by which time England was at war with Russia.(7)
Amid scenes of great public excitement the regiment marched out of its Manchester barracks to entrain for Southampton. Some 900 strong, they were conveyed in 44 carriages found by the London and North Western Railway Company. They left on Tuesday 4th April in the morning and by the end of the day embarked on the Orinoco in Southampton.(8) Under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Lacy Yea they were part of the 1st Brigade of the Light Division and arrived in the East on 25th April 1854. At the end of May the Army started to move to Varna on the Black Sea.
Whilst there Tole was again to fall foul of military discipline. He was found guilty at a court martial on 31st July, of ‘making away with 1 pair of boots’ and sentenced to 25 lashes and stoppages. Mercifully, for him, he had 20 lashes remitted.(9)
He went with the regiment on transport no.67, Emperor, to the Crimea in September 1854 and fought with them on 20th September at the Battle of the Alma, where the Light Division stormed the great redoubt of Russian guns and suffered heavy losses. He was also with them on 5th November at the Battle of Inkerman. The losses suffered by the Army at Inkerman meant that the siege would grind on; the Russians being too weak to shift the besiegers and the latter too weak to carry the siege. There were grim turns of duty in the trenches in freezing conditions with soldiers wet through and exposed to the harshness of the elements. They were poorly fed and their clothes inadequate to offer any real protection from the cold.
On 18th January 1855 Tole deserted to the enemy.(10) The circumstances of his desertion were related at his trial in 1858. He said in a statement to the court, “On the 17th of January 1855, my company was warned for night duty, and on the morning of the 18th the picket came and relieved us, and we were marched to our tent. I had no time to file my firelock when another man and myself were ordered on wood fatigue. We went to try and get a few roots to boil our breakfast with, when two Russian officers came up to us and asked us what we were doing. We told them we were on fatigue gathering wood. They asked us if we would go with them to take a wounded man in and we consented to accompany them. They took us down into Inkerman, when as we were going along, I told my comrade that we had better make a stand as we were going too far and try and get home. The officers then drew their swords, on which we wrestled with them, but having no arms we were obliged to give in. I was wounded in the left arm. I was then marched into Sebastopol a prisoner. As I could neither read nor write I could not report myself to my commanding officer.”(11)
Tole turns up in Voronesh with other deserters in May of 1855. Despised by the British prisoners of war, they were eventually kept apart from them. Those deserters who offered their services to the Russians found that they were held by them in an equal measure of contempt.(12) At Tole’s trial Sergeant Michael Mahoney of the 55th Regiment stated that Tole was put in the same room as himself and other prisoners of war (Mahoney had been captured in December 1854). At the end of the following month the British prisoners were marched to the police offices in Voronesh and a letter read to them asking them if they would like to return to England. Details of their regiments and how they became prisoners and if they were wounded were also recorded. Though Mahoney could not say if Tole had been present at the time, he did say that thereafter Tole was treated as a deserter by the other prisoners of war, ‘as it was generally stated that he had admitted being a deserter when at the police office’.(13) In August the process of questioning by the police was repeated with an additional detail regarding the deserters. According to Mahoney a letter was read out stating that those men who had deserted could stay behind in Russia if they wished and that they would be sent to America when the war was over. Damaging evidence was also supplied by Corporal Richard Clark of the 23rd Regiment. He had been taken prisoner at the Battle of Inkerman on 5th November 1854 and marched to Voronesh. He stated that every prisoner’s paper was sent up from Sebastopol and each man was returned as either a prisoner of war or a deserter. Tole was always considered to be a deserter by the police authorities in Voronesh.. Clark also stated ‘a letter was read to the prisoners to the effect that the Emperor would intercede with Her Majesty to let all the men who had deserted during the war return to England without punishment. The deserters were recommended to remain in Russia until the war was over, but the option was given them of returning to England. All the prisoners who wished to be exchanged went to Odessa; but Tole did not go. He was not prevented going by wounds or sickness’.(14)
When the exchange of some prisoners took place in October 1855, the names of the deserters remaining at Voronesh were recorded by the Russian police authorities and a copy of the list given to Sergeant Major Francis O’Neill of the 44th Regiment. Tole’s name is one of over 50 on the list.
The list was by no means definitive. Most of those recorded were deserters but also included was Shea of the 88th Regiment who was wounded and could not travel.(15) At his trial Tole explained away his time in Russia by claiming ‘I remained sick in that country for two years’.(16)
The fighting war ended after the fall of Sebastopol in September 1855 and the problem of what to do with the deserters still at large in Russia came into sharper focus. Even as deserters, as opposed to prisoners of war, they had received a small allowance to buy food and drink. When the war was over their status became unclear.
Some of the deserters wanted to return home and were making their way to St Petersburg via Moscow. On 21st February 1857 Lord Wodehouse, the British Consul, wrote to Lord Clarendon informing him that he had received a list of 12 English prisoners of war from Count Tolstoy . They were to be taken on charge by the Consulate and forwarded to England.(17)
The deserters/prisoners of war gave their names and in some cases their aliases to Count Tolstoy. There was an obvious problem of spelling to add to the problem of veracity. How does an illiterate man explain the spelling of his name to a foreigner whose alphabet is Cyrillic? Tolstoy’s list read as follows: John Russel, John Donaghue, John Hikky, Allen Williams, John Cone, William Dwyer, Thomas Tool, James Anderson, William Kelly, Robert Tatton, Andrew Seems and John Thomas.(18)
Lord Wodehouse wrote to Lord Clarendon on 7th March 1857 informing him that eight of the 12 men mentioned in Count Tolstoy’s note had arrived in St Petersburg at the beginning of March. The other four had been left behind due to illness. Three were at Tula and the other at a place he could not decipher. The men had suffered from frostbite and it was feared that one who was left behind might have to have a hand amputated. Wodehouse provided a new list with more detail: John Coyle (not John Russel) from the 68th Regiment, volunteered from the 14th Regiment , bayonet wound in the thigh; John Hikky, 57th Regiment, not wounded; William Dwyer 47th Regiment, struck on the head with a firelock; Thomas Tool, 7th Fusiliers, bayonet wound on the left arm; James Anderson 47th Regiment, wounded in the head and hip by a ball; Ralph (not Robert) Tatton, 28th Regiment, taken prisoner at the cemetery on the 18th June, having been knocked down by two blows on the chest with the butt end of a musket; John Thomas, 23rd Fusiliers, severely wounded in the thigh by a ball. Also noted that ‘All the above British soldiers (with the exception of Ralph Tatton who was made prisoner on the 18th June) were taken by the Russians on the storming of the Redan, on 8th September 1855’. (19) Clearly this was untrue and reveals the ignorance of the group to the list of deserters provided by the Russians and given to Sergeant Major O’Neill. Tole/Tool, Dwyer, Donaghue and Hickey were all there. As for the others they were not and their names do not appear in the regimental muster lists of those missing or deserted from camp. It was this list which appeared as evidence in Tole’s trial in November 1858.
On 14th March 1857 Wodehouse again wrote to Clarendon informing him that the eight English prisoners of war had been forwarded to Konigsberg with a view to sending them on to England.(20) A week later he wrote again with a tale of woe. Shortly after leaving St Petersburg, in a coach provided for their use by the Consulate, to the value of 70 silver Roubles, the group had managed to fall asleep inside with a lighted candle. The coach caught fire and was completely destroyed along with the clothes supplied to the men at St Petersburg. Wodehouse also added that three more prisoners had turned up in St Petersburg and that another was expected soon.(21) Mindful of the expense involved in maintaining the prisoners, Wodehouse wrote to Clarendon again on 27th March, suggesting that it would be cheaper to send the men on to Cronstadt where they could be put on board an English ship and then taken home to England. He also added that he had heard that one of the prisoners reported that there were some 94 English deserters in the Russian interior, that the Russian government had granted each one of them 300 silver Roubles and a piece of land. It was stated that the deserters were discontented with their condition and were only prevented from returning home by fear of punishment.(22) Attached to this letter was a copy of another from a W. J. Hertlet relating to the eight men on their way to Konigsberg. The eight had become six.
In a statement to the Consul in Konigsberg the six remaining prisoners had declared, ‘We left St Petersburg on 7th March and arrived at Duneberg about 10 days afterwards. Two of the men, John Thomas 23rd Fusiliers, Ralph Tatton of the 28th Regiment, left us here and straggled in the town. The carriers declared they were under contract for time and could not wait. We were detained at the river at Duneberg from 10 o’clock in the morning till about 10 at night but the two men did not come to us.
We then proceeded on the journey and arrived at the Russian borders on the 25th where we were informed that the Russian authorities would not suffer the carriers to pass. We therefore hired a conveyance ourselves to Tilsit from which place we came on by the diligence to Konigsberg’.(23) The statement bore the marks of the six including Tole. Hicky had been written down as ‘Sticky’. Hertlet continued by reporting that the men wanted to rest for a day and that as the rivers were closed by ice, the six could be sent by train to Stettin and then to England by steamboat. On 4th April 1857 Wodehouse mentioned in a letter to Clarendon that he had received a letter from the Reverend Mr. Gray, the British Chaplain in Moscow respecting the 94 English deserters. The Reverend was ‘in much perplexity as to what course to adopt towards these men who were presenting themselves from day to day at Moscow, some acknowledging themselves as deserters, but anxious to return at any risk to England, others saying they have not deserted, but have been made Russian subjects without their knowledge or consent’ Wodehouse expressed the view that the Russian government was much embarrassed to know what to do with the men and would gladly be rid of them. He also stated that the Russians would ‘probably object to giving them up unless they were assured that the men voluntarily exposed themselves to the punishment which they have incurred as deserters’. He asked for instructions regarding them and speculated that they were likely to prove the source of much trouble if they remained in Russia.(24)
The two men who had disappeared at Duneburg later turned up at Konigsberg. ‘Ralph Tatton’ of the 28th regiment arrived on 4th April and ‘John Thomas’ of the 23rd regiment on 6th April. Hertlet, the Consul in Konigsburg wrote that they claimed to have got left behind ‘from accident and ignorance’. They looked a sorry sight and appeared ‘to have suffered severely from every sort of privation’. He allowed them to rest and provided them with fresh clothes and soap ‘to get rid of the vermin’ before sending them on by train to the Consul in Stettin on 7th April. As well as the deserters, genuine British prisoners of war had passed through St Petersburg and on to Cronstadt in March. Charles Eastland de Michele wrote, in a letter to Lord Wodehouse, dated 13th July 1857, that John Cave, 97th regiment, William Kelly 56th regiment, Andrew Seems 72nd regiment and Eli Williams 88th regiment had been detained in hospitals in different locations in the interior of Russia. Kelly and Cave went missing at Cronstadt while Seems was put on the steamer Adonis bound for London and Eli Williams was sent home on 18th June 1857 on the Ranger. He was described as being in a ‘very precarious state of health’.
The name of the ship that took Tole and the other five deserters from the Baltic to England is not known at the moment. At his trial Tole claimed he had sailed from Hamburg and with just a few shillings in his pocket, the gift of some English ladies and gentlemen in St Petersburg, he had made his way home to see his mother and father in Manchester and then made his way to rejoin his regiment.(25)
It is possible to surmise that he travelled to England in the spring of 1857 and then decided to lose himself to avoid arrest. What is certain though is that he married Mary Regan in January 1858 in the church of St Walburge in the town of Preston, Lancashire. He was living at 17 Canal Street and gave his occupation as a hand loom cotton weaver. His bride was a ‘drawing tenter’ in a cotton mill. Seven months later his wife gave birth to a daughter in their home at 8 Back Canal Street.(26)
Unfortunately for Tole, he had an acquaintance who was a Manchester policeman. At his trial in November 1858, police constable Joseph Hurst stated that he knew Tole over some 15 years and had suspicions that he was a deserter from the 7th Fusiliers. He had arrested him twice before but had to release him because the proof failed. The regiment at this time was in India and the depot at Chatham. Hurst arrested Tole on 18th September 1858 in a beer house in Manchester and this time the proof did not fail. His arrest attracted the attention of the press and the Times reported the progress of the case against him in the military and naval intelligence columns of the paper. On 2nd October they described how he had arrived at Chatham Barracks under a strong escort, handcuffed and having been marched through London. On arrival at Chatham he was marched to the guard house and the troops who turned out to witness his incarceration gave vent to their feelings of disgust and contempt for him ‘in no measured language’. The paper then related how Tole had helped the Russians when he deserted in the company of a soldier named Moore on the night of 22nd March 1855 and immediately given valuable intelligence to the enemy. That same night the Russians made an attack on our trenches causing heavy casualties among the 7th Fusiliers and the 34th Regiment. They wrote that Tole had gone to New York where he remained until he decided to return to Manchester. The other deserter, Moore , was said to have died shortly after joining the Russian army. All this of course was highly inaccurate and the Times prefaced this fiction with ‘several incorrect statements have appeared respecting the base desertion of the prisoner’. They then proceeded to add to them. On the 15th October the paper speculated that Tole ‘if found guilty may be sentenced to death.’
In December 1858 Tole was convicted of desertion to the enemy and sentenced to transportation for life.(27)
After over a years incarceration Tole embarked on board the convict ship Palmerston and left Portland on 10th November 1860 bound for the Swan River Colony, Western Australia. There were 106 passengers and 293 convicts aboard. Tole was recorded as being born in 1834, married with one child and a silk weaver and soldier as occupations. It was also recorded that he was illiterate and a Roman Catholic. The ship arrived, after a voyage of 93 days, at Fremantle on 11th February 1861.(28) From the records of the convict’s physical appearance further details can be found regarding convict #5718 Thomas Tole. He was recorded as being 5 ft. 9 ins. tall with black hair, hazel eyes, a round face and a swarthy complexion. He was of stout build. He had the letter ‘D’ on his left side and this was almost certainly the tattoo applied by the Army following his earlier desertion. He also had a scar under his left eye and under his chin.(29)
A few months after his arrival in Western Australia there was a census taken in the British Isles. From its details it is possible to envisage the plight of his wife and daughter. They were living at 35 Lower Coal Croft in the St John district of Blackburn. The place was a boarding house run by an Irish rag merchant. Mary Tole is recorded as Mary ‘Toole’ and their daughter was then 3 years of age. Mary’s occupation is ‘Cotton Drawer’. Many of the neighbouring houses in the street are described as ‘dilapidated’.(30) The chances of her earning enough to pay her rent and look after herself and her child and put money by to join her convict husband in Australia were slim. Yet it was possible to emigrate with assistance from the government.
On 22nd February Thomas Tole was granted a ‘ticket of leave’.(31) This was granted after a satisfactory period of probation had been served. In his case it was a shade over three years. The ticket gave him a degree of freedom to find work or work for himself. His ticket shows that he worked in the Fremantle, York and Sussex areas of Western Australia as a tailor and a sawyer.
Of course there could be no letters between Tole and his wife unless they were written by a third person. The granting of a ‘ticket of leave’ though meant that a convict could bring his family from Britain to join him. From here on the trail goes cold. To date no record of Mary Tole and her daughter joining Thomas Tole in Australia has been found.
Recent research has uncovered some of the missing detail regarding the deserter Thomas Tole and his activities as a convict. Rather than settle down and comply with those in authority over him he displayed defiance and bad habits. In one document there is a list of transgressions and punishments committed whilst at Fremantle and Perth. The infractions follow the same disregard for rules that he showed as a soldier. In December 1865 he was guilty of a breach of regulations. This was followed in February 1866 by a refusal to work at the Clarence Party and insolence to the visiting Magistrate. These brought him a collective 21 days with ‘B&W’ presumably ‘bread and water.’
On 27th November 1871 Tole was granted his Conditional Pardon – the ‘condition’ being, of course, that he should never return to England. In January 1885 he did leave Western Australia for Adelaide, South Australia.(32)
Tole manages to keep under the radar until 19th April 1890 when he is admitted to Adelaide Lunatic Asylum. He is described as single and in general bodily good health; his last abodes were in the Adelaide localities of Everard and Camden. Nonetheless he was thought to be suffering from delusional insanity but released in May. He was re-admitted in December 1890 with ‘alcoholismus’. After treatment at Adelaide Asylum he was transferred to Parkside Asylum in March 1891. Tole’s wife may not have joined him in Australia, but to the end he was thinking of her! A case note in April 1891 records ‘Has delusions of hearing etc – says he saw his wife here which is not the case.’ He remained in Parkside until his death from cancer and mania on 5th December 1893.(33) He was buried in an unmarked grave in West Terrace Cemetery, Adelaide.
1. GRO Death certificate
2. GRO Death certificate.
3. 1851 census returns.
4. National Archives, WO12/2515, Muster roll 7th Fusiliers, 1853.
6. Ibid (1854.)
7. National Archives, WO86/007/124, District Courts Martial, 1854.
8. ‘A Soldier’s Experience’ Timothy Gowing, 7th Fusiliers. Chapter 1, pp.11-14.
9. National Archives, WO 28/126, Crimea Courts Martial.
10. Times newspaper, Court martial report, 27th November 1858.
12. ‘The Prisoners of the Voronesh’ transcribed and edited by David Inglesant, Unwin Brothers Ltd. 1977, Chapter 8, pp.202-203.
aka ‘The Diary of Sergeant George Newman 23rd Regiment of Foot The Royal Welch Fusiliers taken prisoner at Inkerman’.
13. Times newspaper, Court martial report, 27th November 1858.
15. The National Archives, WO28/193. pt.1.
16. Times newspaper, Court martial report, 27th November 1858.
17. The National Archives FO 65/493, correspondence Wodehouse to Clarendon, no.93.
19. Ibid, no.113.
20. Ibid, no.128.
21. Ibid, no.131.
22. Ibid, no.139.
24. Ibid, no.157.
25. Times newspaper, Court martial report, 27th November 1858.
26. GRO Marriage certificate.
27. The National Archives ,WO12/ 2521, Depot muster list 7th Fusiliers.
28. ‘Convicts to Australia’, Perth Dead Persons Society website.
30. National census returns 1861.
31. Convict Ticket of Leave Register. Toodyay Acc. 721/30. WA State Records Office.
32. Dictionary of Western Australians Volume 2 (Bond), 1850-1868, Rica Erickson.
33. Adelaide/Parkside Lunatic Asylums Case Notes, David Buob, Glenside Historical Society.