One of my lines contains the GAIT family of Chewton Mendip, who lived at Bathway and ran a smithy on the crossroads to the south of the main village. In the latter part of the 18th century the head of the family was Angelo (sometimes Angel) Gait who was born around 1737. If one studies the parish register it is possible to see the careers of his two eldest sons John (1776-1833) and Simon (1781-1836) and assume they had never left the village. John, like his father and two generations before him was a blacksmith, whilst Simon learnt the trade of a cordwainer (or shoemaker) as an apprentice in Bristol and Wells. John married in Chewton, both had children baptised there and both were buried in the churchyard of St Mary Magdalene. However, both brothers, and their wives appeared at various times before the magistrates and underwent examinations as to rights of settlement, and the resulting documents show a different story. After obtaining the brothers’ military records from the National Archive it has been possible to put together a fuller picture of their event-filled lives.
At the age of 16, John had been apprenticed to a James GAITE of Gurney Slade (possibly a cousin of his father) and following James’ death, to Henry OSBORNE of Shepton Mallet. On completing his apprenticeship it seems that John decided to join the Royal Marines in Plymouth. He enlisted on 30th June 1800 and served until 1st June 1805. No record of his service seems to exist, but he must have returned to Chewton afterwards, because two years later, in June 1807 he married a local girl, Flora BLACKER in Chewton and Flora was probably about four months pregnant. The day before his wedding, John had appeared before John KINGSMITH in a Settlement Examination and made sure that his marriage was duly noted. This may be because he knew he would be away for some time and that his new wife and child-to-be would require assistance from the parish. The fact was that John had enlisted again, just three days earlier, in the 4th (King’s Own) Regiment of Foot; this was the regiment that his brother Simon (see below) had joined six years earlier. The brothers were in different battalions (John the 2nd and Simon the1st) and their careers didn’t take the same path for many years. The 2nd battalion were stationed in Jersey until 1809; Flora Gait appeared before the Chewton magistrate in April of 1808 and gave evidence that this was so and claimed that she and her baby daughter were now chargeable to the parish.
John’s battalion took part in the ill-fated Walcheren expedition of 1809 and early in the following year were shipped out to Gibraltar and thence to Ceuta, a garrison on the north African coast, facing the rock. The 1st battalion had suffered great losses at the battle of Badajoz in 1812 and the second were to join them and the fit men transferred to make up the establishment of the 4th Foot in December of that year. From this date the two brothers fought together and we should therefore look at Simon’s career to this date.
Although John had been apprenticed in his late teens, Simon was taken by his father, Angelo to Bristol, at the age of 10 to be employed as an errand boy by Ambrose STONER of High Street, linen draper and haberdasher. He worked there for about four years and then was apprenticed to John ATKINS of Temple Street, cordwainer for the term of five years. It was an unusual apprenticeship in that Angelo not only had to pay a premium of £6, but also fund Simon’s board and lodgings at the house of Thomas PROUT in St.Thomas parish. Four years into his apprenticeship, Simon’s master “ran away and gave up business”, according to Simon’s testimony at his examination, and Angelo had to pay another premium to William FURZEY of Wells so that the apprenticeship could be finished. There is no evidence as to what Simon did in the four or five years after qualifying as a journeyman cordwainer, but on 2nd March 1801 he enlisted in the 4th Regiment of Foot at Marlborough. His early years in the regiment encompassed the peace with France following the Treaty of Amiens (1802) and then the threat of invasion by Napoleon’s Grand Army which was a very real possibility. The 4th were variously stationed at Shornecliffe, near Folkestone, Hythe and Canterbury, defending the south coast until Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar ended the fear of invasion and the British Army could go on the offensive in Europe.
During his time in the south-east Simon married Charlotte WALLAR at Horsham in Sussex, on 15th May 1805. The regiment was ordered abroad late that year to augment the Hanoverian army which was about to be involved in the wars on the continent. However, Napoleon’s crushing defeats of the Austrian and Prussian forces meant that any resistance to the French crumbled and the British regiments were brought home. For the next eighteenth months the 4th were stationed at Colchester and it was at St Leonards church there that Simon and Charlotte had their first child, a son named Simon baptised in May 1807. Sadly nothing more is known of this child; he was not with the family ten years later, and may have died in either England or Spain. The regiment were involved in several other overseas expeditions in the course of the next few years; they were involved in the capture of Copenhagen in late 1807, following a naval bombardment and an abortive visit to Gothenberg in 1808, intended to bolster Swedish support for the allies, before the King of Sweden changed his mind and the troops were recalled. The 4th returned home in August but were to embark almost at once for Portugal where the French had subdued the whole Iberian Peninsula and the British were to help our allies the Potuguese and support the popular rising of the Spanish people.
The story of the Peninsular War, as it is known, has been told many times and the 4th were to play a full part in virtually all of the actions. Having retaken Lisbon from the French, the British under Sir John Moore advanced into Spain to join up with local forces, but found that they had already been defeated, and the British were left isolated and forced to retreat, in dreadful winter conditions, to the coast at Corunna (La Coruna) in the north of the country. There the regiment played a major part in the resulting battle, earning particular praise from Sir John Moore, shortly before his fatal wounding. Returning to Colchester barracks in January 1809 the 1st battalion had a few month’s respite before taking part in the Walcheren expedition alongside the 2nd battalion. However they spent most of the following year in England before once again being dispatched to the Peninsula, where the new commander, Lord (later Duke of) Wellington pushed the French out of Portugal once more and began the campaign which resulted in the overwhelming defeat of Napoleon’s forces in Spain.
Although Wellington’s famous remark that the infantry were recruited from “the scum of the earth” is often quoted, one musn’t forget the remarkable relationship between the commander and his men. He relied upon them to carry out his audacious tactics and they trusted him as a general not to waste lives unneccesarily. On leaving the army both brothers had their conduct recorded as “good” and Simon’s time as an NCO assumes a degree of trustworthyness and aptitude. The campaign in the Peninsula was ferocious and the conditions frequently appalling and yet the troops remained resiliant; and not only the troops – each regiment allowed a number of the wives of married men to accompany it on campaign, and among these at this time was Charlotte Gait. These army wives were selected by ballot and, apart from looking after their husbands, they took on other tasks, such as washing, nursing and cleaning for the other men. Her presence with the 4th is proved by the fact that her daughter, Mary Ann always gave her place of birth (1811/2) in later Censuses as “Spain”.
The 4th took part in the battles and assaults at Ciudad Rodrigo, Badajoz and Salamanca (1812) before retiring to winter quarters in Portugal late in the year where the 1st and 2nd battalions were reformed after so many losses (over 200 from the 1st at Badajoz alone) into one battalion with the wounded returning to England where a new 2nd battalion would be formed. The Gait brothers were now fighting in the same unit, John as a private, which remained his rank throughout his career, and Simon most probably as a sergeant which he was for most of his period of service. 1813 brought the battle of Vittoria and the storming of San Sebastian, in both of which conflicts the 4th played a major role – especially at San Sebastian where their courage and example was noted by the Brigade commander Major General ROBINSON. John was injured at San Sebastian and shortly after Simon was also injured at a skirmish near St Jean de Luz, following the invasion of France.
The brothers were both deemed active for service however, as the 4th was chosen to be one of three regiments to be sent to America to take part in the war that had broken out in 1812 between the United States and Great Britain. They embarked from the Garonne in May 1814 and arrived, after brief landings on the Azores and Bermuda, in Chesapeake Bay in August. Once disembarked, the British force advanced on Washington, the newly built (and not quite completed) capital of the newly independant republic. They were met by an American army three times their size at the village of Bladensburg, but managed to overcome it and arrived in the city which was largely burnt down by the British. The action was seen as little more than a raid as not enough troops were available for a full invasion, so the army was withdrawn and travelling via Jamaica, were landed in Louisiana to take part in an attempt to capture the city of New Orleans. The resulting battle was a disaster for the British Army with the 4th taking the brunt of the casualties – nearly a half its establishment being killed or wounded, among them John Gait, who survived, but took no further part in the war. Further actions took place, but news arrived early in 1815 that a peace had been concluded, and the regiment was shipped back to Europe.
The regiment’s Muster Roll for that spring shows Simon at sea, returning from America and his brother on a hospital ship. John does not seemed to have returned to the regiment and ended his service in July 1815, although he did not receive his pension from the Chelsea Hospital until 1821. The official discharge certificate was witnessed by the churchwardens of his home parish of Chewton Mendip, one of whom, Jeremiah Gait (the brothers’ first cousin) was my 4x great grandfather. John and Flora had three further children baptised in Chewton where he is described as a blacksmith in 1816 and 1819, but a labourer in 1823. On the death of his father, Angelo, the lease of the smithy and cottage had lapsed so it may be that John had to look for work elsewhere. At least his army pension of 6d a day helped the family’s finances. John was buried in the churhyard of St Mary Magdalene on 22nd December 1833.
The 4th Regiment of Foot returned to England on the 18th May 1815 to find Europe in the grip of another crisis, following Napoleon’s escape from Elba. It was at once rushed to Belgium and joined Wellington’s army at Waterloo one hour before the battle commenced. Having spent most of the day in reserve, it was moved forward to the apex of the action at the front of the British line in time to hold out against the advance of the Imperial Guard. Having replused Napoleon’s crack regiment, they then took part in the general advance which broke the nerve of the French who retreated in disarray. The arrival of the Prussian army completed the rout and victory was assured. The British army advanced on Paris and the 4th remained in France for several years as part of an army of occupation. In the summer of 1817 the establishment of the regiment was severly reduced and Simon was among those who were discharged. He had served 16 years and 90 days (with a grant of two extra years service added for Waterloo), of which only three and a half years were as a corporal and 190 days as a private. Like all the other veterans of his last battle he received the silver Waterloo Medal and he was also granted a pension of 1/- per day. His statement before a Settlement Examination in November 1817 gives us most of the information on his life to date, and yet his military career was not quite over. Two years later his wife, Charlotte claimed at another Examination that she was chargable to the parish as her husband Simon had “been called out into the King’s Service at Plymouth for seven weeks last past..”. It is not known how long this period of service lasted, but Simon was certainly back in Chewton the following year as their youngest son, Thomas was baptised there in 1821.
Simon died in Chewton Mendip and was buried on March 27, 1836. Charlotte, the third member of the Gait family to be a Peninsula veteran joned him in 1849 aged around 71.
A note on research
I first came across the Gait brothers whilst researching my antecedents in Chewton Mendip. Their father, Angelo was the younger brother of my ancestor James Gait (1729-62) and only came to my direct attention when I looked at the Chewton records that remain, in addition to the registers. It is fortunate that many of these exist for the period – Churchwardens’ Accounts, Vestry Minutes and Settlement Examinations among them. The latter are particularly useful for the family historian as they often provide vital biographical information. These Examinations were carried out by two local worthies in order to establish whether the individual, and therefore his family, was entitled to the support of the parish should they become destitute. In the case of Simon, for instance, his Examination in 1817 provides his approximate age and place of birth, his father’s name and right of settlement, the details of his various apprenticeships, his regiment and discharge date; also included were the approximate date and parish of his marriage, and the names of his wife and child, as well as the latter’s age.
It was all this detail which made it possible to establish that Simon Gait of Chewton Mendip was the same individual as Simon Gates of the 4th Regiment of Foot. The same is true of his brother, John. in both cases the men always appear (and sign themselves) as Gates in military records but as Gait in Chewton, yet the evidence is conclusive that they are identical. The military records which are held at The National Archive (WO97, available online at Find My Past) are in fact discharge certificates required for obtaining a pension from the Royal Hospital, Chelsea; in addition to the details included in the article above they give brief descriptions of the men, to prevent fraud: John was 5’ 7’” tall, with dark hair, black eyes and a dark complexion, whereas Simon was 5’ 10 3/4”, with brown hair, hazel eyes and a fair complexion.
I have been particularly lucky with the research on the Gaits, insofar as all these documents still exist, but it shows how digging a little deeper can provide fascinating facts about the lives of our forebears which help us understand the world in which they lived.
Chewton Parish Registers and other records (Somerset History Centre)
Chelsea Hospital Army Service Records (TNA, WO97)
Historical Records of the British Army: the 4th or King’s Own Regiment of Foot 1838 (archive.org)