I was fortunate enough to stumble across this late Victorian infantry tunic whilst browsing online late one evening. Whilst I originally had no intention of purchasing it from the antique dealer who had listed it for sale, I was intrigued by the stamping inside, which led to a quick check for who the original owner had been. Needless to say, after about 10 minutes of research, I had purchased the tunic!
This pattern tunic was introduced in 1881 and worn up until around 1902. The white facings (collar and cuffs) denote its use by a non-royal regiment. Despite being issued in huge quantities over this period, they are now quite difficult to find on the open market. Sadly, the embroidered shoulder straps are missing. This is commonplace with these tunics, as dealers and collectors have been known to remove these to collect them individually, or sell them on as helmet flashes. I believe at one point, they were more valuable than the tunics themselves!
Amazingly, the manufacturer’s paper label is still present and shows this tunic was made by James Smith & Co of Derby in 1899. The company had been established in 1860, and were still manufacturing military clothing into the 1970s.
Inside the tunic is stamped in black ink – GR over 6012 over 8 01. This was the standard way of marking uniform during the period which identified the owner and when they were issued the garment. The GR is the regiment (GR being short for Gloucestershire Regiment), 6012 being the soldiers number and 8 01 being the date and month it was issued (August 1901). A quick search through military records show us this was issued to Fred Watson.
6012 Private Frederick Watson, Gloucestershire Regiment.
The life of Frederick Watson still remains somewhat of a mystery. According to his service records, he was born in Attercliffe, Sheffield in 1879 and had worked as a Collier before joining in the Army. He gave his next of kin as his brother Thomas, address unknown. Frederick enlisted at Fulwood, Preston for the Gloucestershire Regiment on the 9th October 1900. His records reveal he had tattoos on his right arm of a girls head, flags and “Yanky girl”!
Frederick arrived at the Depot of the Gloucestershire Regiment in Bristol the day after enlisting in Fulwood. Here he would have completed his basic military training and been inducted into military life.
It would appear Frederick wasn’t keen on army life, and deserted a couple of weeks later on the 26th October 1900. Frederick returned to his regiment on 4th February 1901, although we don’t know whether this was of his own free-will! His trial was cancelled, but he was “to suffer same forfeitures and deductions as if tried“. Pte Watson returned to duty on the 14th February 1901.
It wasn’t long until he found himself in trouble again, this time being arrested by the local police on the 9th April and imprisoned for 21 days. He had been found guilty of being drunk and disorderly in Cheltenham Road, Bristol and assaulting a policeman.
His return to duty in June was brief as on the 5th July he was detained, awaiting a District Court Martial for:
- Offering violence to his superior officer.
- Using threatening language to his superior officer.
Pte Watson was found guilty by court martial and sentenced to 21 days imprisonment with hard labour. He returned to duty again in August 1901, when the tunic would have been issued to him on his return.
Frederick is unlikely to have gotten much use out of this tunic, as on the 1st September he was arrested in Devonport for theft of clothes and boots, being convicted 3 days later, to 2 months imprisonment. I suspect he was almost certainly deserting the army again and therefore needed the civilian clothing. Perhaps this tunic was discarded by Frederick in Devonport, and that’s how it survived?
Whilst in prison, Frederick was discharged from the army, effective from the 21st September 1901.
It would appear that Frederick re-enlisted into the army, this time as 5583 Pte Fred Watson of the 4th (Militia) Battalion Yorkshire Regiment on the 17th December 1902 at Bradford. On this occasion, he stated he was born in Wath, near Barnsley and had no previous military service! The signatures on the attestation forms are remarkably similar, but his tattoo of a girl’s head, union jack, stars and stripes with Yankee Girl written on his right forearm are the dead giveaway! Interestingly, this time he gave his next of kin as his mother, Harriet Watson, of Spring Street, Mexborough.
Un-surprisingly by now, it wasn’t long until Fred was in trouble again. On the 3rd January 1903, Frederick and another Private by the name of Arthur James, stole the property of Joseph Ward in Richmond. They took two watches and a purse containing 3 shillings and were also charged (although later dropped) with wounding Joseph Ward. A warrant for the arrest went out on 26th January, and they were tried and found guilty on the 11th March 1903. Fred was sentenced to 15 months hard labour and immediately discharged from the Militia.
I have been unable to conclusively trace Fred Watson after this date, so whether he changed his ways, or lived a life of crime we don’t know!
This tunic demonstrates what I love the most about military history and militaria, and that’s the stories of people from all walks of life!