The Sole Society, a Family History Society researching Sole, Saul, Sewell, Solley and similar names

Henry Sewell the Soldier

By Ian Sewell

This article was originally published in the April 2002 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society.


Henry Sewell was born in April 1822 in Great Leighs, Essex the son of Johnathon Sewell a farmer steward.

20th Regiment, the East DevonshireBut the farming life didn’t seem to appeal to Henry and he joined the army at Chelmsford Barracks aged 17 years and 6 months. Though from Essex and joining in Chelmsford which was the home of the 56th Regiment, the West Essex, Henry joined the 20th Regiment, the East Devonshire which was soon to become the Lancashire Fusiliers.

Henry doesn’t seem to have been an exceptional soldier as it took him nearly eight years before he was promoted to Corporal. This may have something to do with him being part of the depot battalion rather than the main regiment. Whilst the depot was based in Newport, Isle of Wight he met and married Mary Ann Talbot on 3rd January 1848. Soon after, he was sent to join the rest of the regiment in Bermuda.

Nowadays we would consider this a plum assignment but then it was a terrible posting due to the incidence of disease with the troops, primarily Yellow fever. Records show that losses in the 20th were quite high but Henry seems to have prospered even being promoted to Sergeant in 1849. After just over four years the 20th came back to Great Britain just in time for the Crimean War.

In total Henry spent nearly 2 years with the regiment in the Crimea and fought in the battles of Alma, Inkerman and Sevastopol. The battle of Inkerman was especially hard for the 20th who spent most of the day in hand to hand fighting with the Russians and lost a great many men. Now an experienced veteran, Henry returned to England a Colour Sergeant and soon he and Mary were celebrating the birth of their first child Johnathon in Plymouth. Interestingly, he is recorded in the Army Births, but Henry is said to be a member of the 70th Regiment, this may be a transcription error.

Perhaps the birth of his first child had an effect on Henry because soon after his promotion he was tried by regimental court martial for going absent without leave. Reduced to Private he was then shipped out with the regiment to India to fight in the Indian Mutiny, where he was present at the relief of Lucknow. On the 21st June 1861 he mustered out of the army at his own request after service of 21 years and 45 days and was granted a pension of one shilling.

Henry and Mary then returned to Essex where he gained a position with the West Essex Militia, based in Chelmsford. He is recorded as being mustered out as a Corporal of the 20th when he was only a private. Perhaps a mistake was made in the order books or Henry decided to inflate his position a bit. Either way, he was now a Colour Sergeant in the West Essex Militia, one of the permanent staff based in the Moulsham barracks in Chelmsford.

Whilst in Chelmsford, three more children were born, Emily, Susannah and Albert. One of the more interesting notes in the order books was that in January 1872 he was sent to Harlow to recruit but was recalled two days later when an outbreak of smallpox hit the town. On the 25th September 1873 Colour Sergeant Henry Sewell was found to be unfit for service due to defective vision and dismissed from the regiment. This was eighteen months after winning his marksmen badge and a 30 shilling prize!

And then what happened to Henry and his family? Well to be frank I don’t know. I have not been able to find any trace of the family, except Susannah, from this date. They are missing from the 1881 census and 1901 and no records of deaths or immigration exist for any of them. Susannah suddenly appears in December 1883 when she married one Harry Palmer in Clitheroe, Lancashire where she settles and raises a family. Some day I hope to find what happened to them all.

What’s my connection to Henry? Well when I started this business of tracing my family I asked for details from the family. Tracing my grandfather’s line was going to be difficult as we knew he was illegitimate and this was never ever spoken of in the family. My father didn’t even know his birthday! Anyhow, a birth certificate came into my possession of a Frederick Palmer, son of Susannah Palmer nee Sewell. I was told that Susannah was Louisa’s (my great-grandmother) sister and so off I went in search of the family details. Everything went well until I happened on the 1871 census records for the family which failed to mention Louisa. Worse, there was no room for her in the family between Susannah and brother Albert!

Dejected I returned to Susannah wedding certificate and noticed where she was living in Clitheroe. The 1881 census had a family of Sewell’s from Essex living at that address and sure enough in the 1871 census I found Louisa the daughter of another Henry and Mary Ann Sewell.

What Susannah was doing there and why the family had moved to Lancashire I still do not know, but it is interesting to note that Susannah gives the occupation of her father on her wedding certificate as Carter, which was the occupation of the Henry that lived up there. Perhaps she was adopted when the rest of the family went overseas?

I have since traced my Sewell line back to 1792 but have only found agricultural labourers and nothing as interesting as Henry Sewell the Soldier

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