Sunday, 16 November 2014

Great Great Great Grandfather, What did you do in the war?


Oxford Loyal Volunteer Jan.1.1799,
by published by T. Taylor, High Street, Oxford [1]

Writing this blog in 2014 I am acutely aware that as is the case for almost everybody else in Europe, it is the 100 years anniversary of the First World War. Being greater than half a century old, I   remember meeting and having enormous respect for many of the veterans of that conflict.

Was this however really the First World War?

With the ever improving access now available to researchers into family history, and especially the fantastic work of the British Library in scanning and releasing the local newspapers from former years, it is now possible if you are really lucky to explore these earlier conflicts in great detail.

This exploring has led me to question if the 1914-18 was really the First World War, or even the Greatest War.  It was certainly very serious, and had enormous impacts.

Through my research into my own forebears, I have been struck by just how comprehensive the mobilisations for some of the earlier wars have been, and just how my forebears had been affected, and also how many of them had active roles in these earlier wars.

For my family, 1914-18 was certainly not the first World War, as they had already been involved in at least two previous global conflicts in 1759, and again in the 1790's that both would have merited that title. In the blogs, I will explore some of these peoples lives in more detail.

My Great Great Great Grandfather Henry Hervey Baber by 1798 already had two brothers who were already serving in the East India Company in India, and another who had just set out for India as a Civil Servant, and who by the end of the year would be heavily involved in fighting out there.

Like so many families in those days, one son, in this case the eldest, Henry was destined for the church.  He was studying Theology at Oxford, so that it was with some surprise that I came across the following extract in a Memorandum that he kept detailing the major events of his life.

It is not quite what you might expect to find, when you research an ancestor who was a clergyman. However this was a revolutionary war, and against an enemy who was intent on bringing down society and the church as they knew it.

In his memorandum Henry recorded...


May 6   Enrolled myself in the Oxford University Volunteers – a private in Captn Scowen’s Company

July 5   The Oxford University Volunteers had their colours presented by Lady Harcourt – a sermon preached in Chrischurch Meadow by Rev’d Mr: Blackstone of New Coll. – Shocking wet day. – under arms from 10 o’Clock to 4, without standing at ease once – severe duty.

The following account of the proceedings of the day are contained in the Reading Mercury published on Monday 9th of July 1798

OXFORD, SATURDAY, July 7. On Thursday morning last, the day appointed for the ceremony of presenting the colours, given by his Grace the Duke of Portland, to the Oxford University Volunteers, at half past eleven o'clock the battalion was formed in Christ Church Meadow, where a pavilion was erected for the reception of the Countess Harcourt &c. The ground was kept the City Armed Association forming an extensive line on each side of the pavilion, and the exterior parts were kept by a troop of the 11th regiment of dragoons, quartered at Abingdon, who obligingly gave their services this occasion. Upon Lady Harcourt's coming on the ground the battalion presented arms, then an order was given for the right company to prepare escort for the colours, which, preceded by the Band, advanced towards the pavilion, the line formed a close column and advanced in rear of the right company. The whole ordered arms when a sermon, suitable to the occasion, from the 4th chap. Nehemiah, verse 14,-- And I looked, and rose up, and said unto the nobles, and to the rulers, and to the rest of the people, Be ye not afraid of them: remember the Lord, which is great and terrible, and fight; for your brethren, your sons, and your daughters, your wives, and your houses," was delivered by the Rev. Charles Blackstone, Fellow of New College. After the sermon and consecration of the colours, Lady Harcourt addressed Colonel Coker- "Impressed with the sense of the honour this day conferred upon me, by the Oxford University Volunteers desiring to receive their colours from my hands, I must beg you, Sir, to accept, and to express for me to the regiment, my grateful thanks, with my warmest Wishes for the happiness and prosperity of so respectable a corps.
"The University of Oxford may proudly boast its Founder was a Hero; the Immortal Alfred was equally renowned for his military achievements, and for his patronage of learning within these sacred shades, Edward, and Henry (names ever dear to the glory of England) caught the flame that led them on to conquest, the haughty spirit of France bowed beneath their arms, and now when again she dares our country, and menace us with invasion, this venerable seat of learning finds its brave defenders in those who have here been trained in the love of every art, of every science that dignities mankind. "Long may Oxford flourish, the pride of England, the admiration of the world ! may the patriotic ardour that glows in your bosoms animate every Briton ! may every hand and heart unite to guard our Religion, our King, our Liberty, and our Laws; and may the Almighty Power, who alone can give success, protect the glorious cause."
Her Ladyship then gave the colours to the Colonel, who presented them to the two senior Lieutenants; the Colonel then addressed Lady Harcourt?" MADAM,
"You have this day shewn, that it belongs to the character of refined and dignified benevolence to adopt the language of gratitude while it confers obligation.
" But in whatever manner you may be pleased to speak of your own benignity, I should be guilty of the highest injustice to the honourable men that surround me and to own feelings, if I did not express our most grateful sense of that goodness with which you have condescended to grace and to dignify our ceremony; or, if omitted to make you our warmest acknowledgements for those gracious terms of commendation and praise, which have given not only but a celebrity our undertaking.
" The array of arms and of warlike preparation in a place hitherto devoted to the milder purposes of science and religion, announce the existence of some uncommon occasion of alarm for the welfare of our country.
"An extensive and powerful nation, having thrown off its allegiance Society, to human nature, and to Heaven, has declared hostilities against all the valuable interests and the general happiness of mankind. Under the baneful standard of anarchy and irreligion, it has attacked and destroyed the fairest establishments of human wisdom, to substitute in their place the depravities of corruption and the miseries of despotism. This country, this happy country, whose religion is purity, whole liberty is reason, and whose laws are the union of wisdom, of equity and of mercy, this country so blessed and so distinguished, could not fail to excite the hatred and to provoke the malice of those enemies of mankind; in the fury of their malignity they have daringly, but, I trust most vainly, decreed our destruction and overthrow. You have, Madam, with a most persuasive energy, pointed out to us the glorious conduct that now becomes us as Britons: and you have enforced it the appropriate examples of the brightest characters that adorn our history. In the revered name of the venerable founder, not only of this distinguished seat of learning and piety, but also of the brightest system of civil polity that ever appeared the world, we are called to the protection of our liberties, our religion, and our laws; we are summoned to defend, the example of his valour, the excellent constitution we owe to his wisdom. "In this great and momentous cause we have this day set up and consecrated our standards. "When I look to the noble person to whose liberality are indebted for them, whole protection and patronage is our peculiar boast, I consider them the banners of loyalty, patriotism, and of religion and when I look to the amiable hand from which we received them, I regard them as the ensigns of all the softer and more endearing interest and affections of our nature.
" Turning to the corps, the Colonel proceeded: "To your care, my much honoured companions in arms, to your protection are to be consided these Banners so sacred, so dignified, so endeared. " And when I reflect on the manly and spirited zeal with which you have Stood forward in obedience to the calls of your country; when I reflect on your readiness to quit for the public safety those stations in which you were placed to cultivate and to adorn the community, my heart feels big with proud expectation and hope that you will do justice to the important and honourable trust. Nay, I will not content myself with the cold and doubtful expressions of hope, I will adopt a more just and decided language, I will assert with confidence you will by your conduct at all times evince and confirm, that you have this day's solemnity most awfully and religiously devoted yourselves to the cause of your Sovereign, your Country, and your God. And may that Almighty power, whose creatures we are, in his divine goodness, prosper our humble but ardent endeavours to render ourselves the instruments of his glory and the welfare of our country.

Broad Street Oxford by Rowlandson in about 1809.
" The battalion then formed a line, the escort advanced and pasted in front of it, the line presented arms; the senior Lieutenants then delivered the colours to the two junior Lieutenants, the band playing God save the King" during the ceremony of delivery; the escort resumed its situation. The battalion then passed in review before the Colonel, performing their manoeuvres, and concluded with feu de joye; then passing in review with the Colonel at their head, before Lady Harcourt, they left the ground, and afterwards formed the Broadstreet, when the right company formed an escort and marched in front, the line presenting arms ; the escort then proceeded to lodge the colours.

Christchurch Meadow under a stormy sky.
It can have looked little different in 1798.
The regularity, exactness, and promptitude with which this newly associated body went through the different manoeuvres, would have done honour to the most veteran corps, and though the day was not so propitious as could be wished, the ladies were amply recompensed with a very splendid ball the evening. Earl Harcourt, Right Hon. Wm. Wyndham, Secretary at War, the Rev. the Vice-Chancellor, and many Ladies of distinction, accompanied Lady Harcourt in the pavilion; several temporary stands were crowded with ladies and gentlemen, and a more numerous assemblage of persons, without the smallest confusion or accident happening, has seldom been witnessed on any occasion.

History does not record if Henry took part in any further parades, or if the soaking that he had received that day put him off further soldiering.

On December the 16th 1798 he was ordained a Deacon by the Bishop of Lincoln in Buckden, and in February 1799 he left Oxford to take up a curacy at Ibstock in Leicestershire.

In August 1803 he recorded a second warlike activity.

"reached Ibstock in the evening -- held a meeting at Ibstock on Monday & harangued the people to volunteer their services in defence of their Country. 100 Volunteers enrolled."This event was almost certainly brought about by the restarting of the "Great French War" as it was described later in the 19th Century, that had been halted by the Peace of Amiens signed on the 25th of March 1802, and which had ended on the 18th of May 1803.  This was the only gap in a war that lasted from 1793 until 1814.

Henry Baber went on to become Assistant Librarian at the British Library in 1807, and only retired as Keeper of the Printed Books in 1837. Perhaps it is somehow fitting that it was the British Library that has enabled me to find out so much about his life and those of my other forebears.

Henry went out to Munich in 1814 on a mission for the British Library shortly after Napoleon had been exiled to Elba.  Napoleon's return to France forced Henry to cut short the journey, and he had a hazardous and exciting journey back to Britain via Antwerp often travelling on the same roads that the mobilising Austrian, Prussian and Russians were moving in the lead up to the Battle of Waterloo.

Sent back to France, by the Library in the immediate aftermath of the Battle, he was one of the first civilians into Paris in 1815.  In time I will post blogs on those events too.

If you have found this blog, you probably have had some connection with the events, places and people described. I would love to hear from you if this is the case. I can be reached at

[1]  From Sanders of Oxford Website

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