Turkish Delight

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An attractive uniform indeed!

In 1840 the 11th Light Dragoons provided escort to H.R.H. Prince Albert on his journey to London prior to his marriage to Queen Victoria.  The regiment, of which the Prince became colonel, was directed to be formed into a hussar corps under the title “Prince Albert’s Own”. The blue uniform gave way to a blue and gold tunic with scarlet trousers (scarlet the colour of the Saxe Coburgs). These colours had not previously been worn by any other British hussar regiment. An attractive uniform indeed.

Prince Albert Colonel 11th Hussars

11th Hussars Uniform

Prince Consort Albert of Saxe Coburg and the uniform of 11th Hussars after 1840


William Thistle (born c. 1835) enlisted in the 11th Hussars at the Newbridge Depot.  He used the name ‘John’ on enlistment which appears at various times in other records (E J Boys Archive).  The Regiment had already left for Turkey by this time and had served in Bulgaria prior to landing on the Crimean peninsula. Before Thistle joined his regiment, it had engaged at Alma, Balaclava and Inkerman. The men of the 11th Hussars took part in the Charge of the Light Brigade; Thistle may have ultimately rubbed shoulders with those who survived death, injury or Russian capture.  But Thistle’s involvement in the Crimean conflict did not begin until he joined the regiment on 25th May 1855. He was apparently before Sevastopol as he is recorded in receipt of the clasp for his Crimea War medal, but his Army experience was short-lived as only 12 months later he was arrested at Camp Sebastopol on or about the 3rd June 1856 on a charge of committing the ‘abominable act of buggery with one Osman Mehemet’. (Portland Prison Register).

The Court Martial Register (Abroad) for 1856 records a slightly different phrase in the substance of charge: ‘Unnatural conduct with a Turk’, and records the sentence as approved: ‘To be hanged (commuted to Transportation for Life)’.

Thistle William Court Martial Register
Court Martial Register

Sodomy (or buggery as it was called at the time) first became a civil offence, punishable by death, in 1533 when Henry VIII issued a formal decree (Statute) on the subject.  Sodomy remained a capital offence in England until 1828. Throughout the remainder of the 1800s the act of sodomy was a felony (more serious than a misdemeanour) punishable by imprisonment. Private consensual acts between adults, including same-sex sodomy, were not decriminalized in England until 1967.

Despite the fact that many of the British Army’s leaders (from Richard the Lionheart to Lord Kitchener) are rumoured to have had same-sex preference, penalties for the practice were harsh – as indeed it was for the liaison between William Thistle and the Turkish man Osman Mehemet.  It begs the question “what happened to Mehemet?”

As to the fate of William Thistle ….. He was placed in the Guard Tent at Sevastopol for 17 days and then put on board ship for 28 days bound for England and Millbank Prison.  He was received at Millbank on 19th July 1856 where, as prisoner #3060, he was described as a 30 [sic] year-old, single, Presbyterian with a former trade as labourer.  While he was in Millbank he was permitted visits from his mother, Mrs Thistle, whose address was stated as Westminster Road, London.  Was Mrs Thistle already living in London, or did she make a temporary move to be close to her son? There is a note on the register to indicate that Thistle received his parchment discharge certificate on 12th September 1856.  We can perhaps assume he did not receive the accompanying parchment certificate of character; or if he did, what was written upon it?  It is noted in the 2nd Quarter Muster 1856 that his conduct and character were good previous to his trial, but that he was not in possession of any Good Conduct badges.

After ten months and one day in Millbank, Thistle was removed to Portland Prison on 20th May 1857 where he was designated prisoner #7072; there he was recorded as 20 years old.  Within a few months he boarded the convict ship Nile together with seven other court martialled soldiers.  At least five of them had also served in the Crimean War – Charles Wilson had been in the same regiment as Thistle.  Among them were men convicted of wife murder, manslaughter, desertion to the Russians, and striking a superior officer.

Nile 1858 Register HO11-18-128
Transportation Register of Court Martialled Convicts

The journey to Western Australia was far from ‘plain sailing’.  Trouble with the prisoners was experienced between Plymouth, the departure point for the Nile on 23rd September 1857, and Bahia, Brazil a port of call en route.  Two of the 270 convicts died on the voyage but after Bahia the ship arrived without further serious incident on New Year’s Day in 1858.  Thistle was consigned to Fremantle Prison (#4594) and by some miracle of record-keeping was given a change of occupation from ‘labourer’ to ‘bricklayer’.  However, he lived up to this skill by getting his ticket of leave in Perth in July 1861 and making his way to Champion Bay where he worked as a bricklayer for only a few short years.

William Thistle died accidentally in 1864, aged 29, when his gun discharged. A coroner’s inquest set down a verdict of accidental death.

Thistle William Death [Inquirer 06 Apr 1864]
Inquirer Newspaper 6 Apr 1864
The Records and Badges of the British Army, Chichester & Burges-Short.
The E J Boys Archive.
Crimean Medal Rolls [WO100-24-folio 240] National Archives, Kew.
Register of Courts Martial Abroad 1856 [WO90-3 folio 35] National Archives, Kew.
Millbank Prison Register [PCom-2-38] National Archives, Kew (courtesy Bevan Carter].
Portland Prison Register [PCom-2-385] National Archives, Kew (courtesy Bevan Carter].
Transportation Register [HO11-18-128] National Archives, Kew.
Fremantle Prison Register (online).
Inquirer & Commercial News 6 April 1864.

© Diane Oldman 2015