by Stephen Browness


This is the story of John, the first Browness. It covers his life and times and those of his immediate family.

John can justly be titled "the first Browness" because it was during his lifetime that the name first adopts this spelling.

Many years of research have gone into the making of this account, much travelling, much raking around old parish records and reels and reels of microfilm. There may be those reading it who had hoped that such efforts would have unearthed ancestors of wealth and social status. They will be disappointed. The Browness family is firmly rooted in the illiterate classes of rural England. This very fact gives me a great sense of pride. Our present comfort and well-being is a testament to this family and all its members when one looks closely at its beginnings. And, after all, without the likes of John Browness, the famous in history would not have had their fields tilled, their mills manned or their bloody battles fought.

S. J. Browness

9 March 1985

I. The story begins...

Two miles to the east of Cirencester, in the County of Gloucestershire, lies the tiny village of Ampney Crucis. In the late Eighteenth Century the population of the village was about 500, most of whom were occupied in England's prime activity of the time, agriculture.

Ampney Crucis (the "p" is silent) is an old Cotswold village with a Fifteenth Century church, a Sixteenth Century Inn and a number of beautiful houses built of the local Cotswold limestone.

It was to this village that a thirty year old woman came in the winter of 1784. Her home was Oddington, a village of similar size some 23 miles to the north east. Her name was Mary Brawnus, she was unmarried and she was pregnant.

Mary Brawnus was the youngest child of a family of seven. Her father was James Brandish. In this era, illiteracy was the norm and this accounts for the various spellings of the surname. James Brandish's children were recorded by the curate under the names Brawniss, Brandish, Brandis and Brawnus.

The reasons Mary chose to have her child in Ampney Crucis appear to be two-fold. Firstly, her oldest brother, James, had moved there some fourteen years earlier to marry Mary Day. She would therefore have been able to live with her brother and his family. Secondly, Mary's sister Sarah had herself given birth to an illegitimate son in 1767. This birth had taken place when Mary would have been 13 years old. It is possible that there was some reaction to this event and the memory was such that Mary chose the course of discretion. However, it should be understood that illegitimacy was not at all uncommon in those days.

The parish church register of The Church of Holy Cross, Ampney Crucis, has the following entry for 14 March 1784:

"John Brawnus or Bronas christened, son of Mary Brawnus or Bronas - base born."

"base born" meaning that the name of the father was unknown.

The baby John would have had a strong constitution; infant mortality was high and that he survived with but one parent is an indication of his robustness. Help would have been forthcoming from James and Mary Brandis and their thirteen year old daughter, Mary.

There was a village school, set up by the Pleydell family, to educate the children of the poor. However, there is no record of John ever having attended it and he, too, would have grown up illiterate.

As soon as he was strong enough he would have taken up agricultural labouring - one of the few occupations open to his kind.

When John was seven years old, his mother - now 37 - married John Tipper. The parish records of Ampney Crucis have no further entries of the Tippers and it seems therefore that John and Mary went to live in some neighboring parish. John Brawnus may have gone to live with them or perhaps he remained with his uncle's family. Wherever he lived, he had not travelled far from Cirencester because the next we hear of him he was in this ancient Roman city on 10 August 1799. He was now 15 years old.


By 1799 Great Britain had been at war for some years with Revolutionary France. The year before had seen an uprising in Ireland which had been inspired by the landing of a French army. Most of Europe was in turmoil as a result of Napoleon Bonaparte's ambition to spread the Revolution to all corners of the Continent. To aid him in this ambition, Napoleon introduced a previously unknown concept, that of general mobilisation. With an army vast by comparison to that of his enemies he was well on the way towards conquering Europe.

The British Government realized that her army would need to be strengthened and the order was given to recruit vigorously. The dashing red uniforms, the beat of the drum and the promise of regular pay and food must have been a strong temptation for a country lad. On that summer's day in the last year of the Eighteenth Century, John Brawnus joined the 36th Herefordshire Regiment of Foot as a Private. Having passed his medical examination from the Company Doctor he was given "The King's Shilling" and a bounty of about £2 12s. Out of this he had to pay 2 guineas for his knapsack which only left him about 10 shillings. New recruits received two meals daily - breakfast and dinner. His initial training took place at Winchester. Mondays and Fridays were given over to Battalion Drill, Thursdays and Saturdays to Brigade Drill. Wednesdays were field days. Drills took place two or three times daily. Normally this sort of training went on for six or seven months to be followed by drilling with the musket or "firelock". This had to be cut short, however, as Ireland was still seething with rebellion. The Battalion marched out of Winchester in January 1800 and embarked for Ireland at Fareham, John being transported for 16 days on board "The Diadem".

What follows is neither a comprehensive account of all the actions of the Napoleonic Wars as John did not take part in all of them; nor is it a detailed account of those battles in which he did see action. Rather it is a journey through the campaigns in which the 36th had a part showing, as far as is possible, the conditions under which a soldier of John's rank would have had to endure.


"The Diadem", together with the other transports, docked at Cork in February 1800. The troops disembarked and marched to Fermoy where they were barracked for 3 months. By this time John would have been issued with his uniform of linen trousers, waistcoat and a plain red "slop" jacket for summer wear. Winter uniform consisted of the above plus cotton drawers and a sleeved waistcoat of flannel. The final addition to the uniform, once the recruit was considered suitable, was a red jacket which "buttoned all the way down" and a round hat and cockade. Each regiment had its own distinctive colours apart from the red jackets. The 36th's colour was green. This colour would be displayed on the lapels and cuffs of the jacket.

John's pay as a Private was one shilling a day. This compared with 1s 1¾d for a drummer, 1s 6¾d for a Sergeant, 9s 5d for a Captain and £1 2s 6d for the Colonel. Out of his shilling he had to pay 1½d a day for his bread and meat, four shillings a week for his messing and 1s 6d a week for "necessaries". He was responsible for washing and cleaning his equipment. His net pay amounted to 5¼d a week.

Life in the barracks was spartan indeed. They were cheerless, prison-like buildings, no provision at all for recreation. Each soldier had about 300 cu.ft. of air. Twenty men had to share rooms which were typically 30-32 feet long by 20 feet wide by 7 feet high. Here they ate, drunk and slept, four to a "crib" sleeping on malodourous straw and covered by a few threadbare blankets. Two candles per room provided light at night. The only entertainment might have been provided by a literate soldier reading from a book or broadsheet.

The only urinals were wooden buckets or tubs. Excrement was tipped into nearby cesspits which soon became foul smelling. With no recreation in the barracks the soldiers had no option but to visit local ale houses where they got drunk on cheap gin - beer being comparatively expensive at that time.

Their diet was monotonous. The major constituent was flour which was made up into large loaves of coarse bread. This was supported (and in times of battle or marching replaced) by thin hard round "navy biscuits". Each man was issued with 1 to 1½ lbs. of "ammunition bread" daily. When neither bread nor biscuits were available, the bread ration was supplemented by ¾ lb. of beef. There would sometimes be issues of peas, beans and local cheese.

On the march the soldiers became proficient at making a kind of stew known as "stirabout" by pooling their resources of whatever was available and mixing it all over a fire of twigs using ramrods as a spit.

Soldiers were supposed to be issued with a daily ration of alcohol - 1/3 pint of rum or 1 pint of wine. However, gin was often substituted as it was cheaper.

Barrack life, harsh as it may seem to us, was relatively easy compared to life on the march. The 36th Herefordshire Regiment of Foot were, as the name implies, an Infantry Regiment. It should be remembered that, other than on those occasions when the Regiment was at sea, John would have had to walk every mile of every campaign. It was not until the latter part of the Peninsular War, i.e. 1813, that there was a universal issue of tents to the Army. When the march was halted for an overnight stay, if there was no other accommodation, the troops had to build temporary shelters from boughs, foliage, straw and anything else they could find. Where no bivouac material could be found, the soldiers simply rolled up in their greatcoats and blankets and slept under whatever shelter they could find. Sometimes this would mean sleeping in deep mud.


John's first tour of duty in Ireland was only to last three months. The Regiment was ordered in June 1800 to march back to Cork where they embarked on an expedition under Brigadier-General Sir Thomas Maitland to capture a small island off the coast of France known as L'Isle de Houat. In July they set off again, this time for the Mediterranean island of Minorca.

Minorca had been captured from Spain the year before. Its strategic importance was obvious. From this island could be launched an attack on the south of France. The island was therefore fortified and reinforced by several thousand British soldiers. Although no invasion of France was ever to take place it was regarded as important to prevent Minorca from being taken by the French. Consequently John's Regiment was stationed in Minorca from August 1800 to June 1802 in which month they set sail in order to return to Ireland.

In August 1802 the transports arrived at Cork and the Regiment marched to Galway barracks. There they remained in apparent peace for ten months. Recruiting exercises were carried out in Gort and Athenry and in March 1803 John was promoted to the rank of Drummer. This meant an increase in his pay and a change in uniform and responsibility. The uniforms of the drummers were in "reverse facing". This meant that whereas all other ranks of the Regiment would wear red jackets with green facings, the drummer would wear a green jacket with red facings.

His duties changed to the extent that he had an extra weight to carry, he would be more actively involved in recruiting and he would have the unwelcome responsibility of administering floggings.

On 23 July 1803 there was a serious riot in Dublin. Two senior British officials were assassinated and in consequence the 36th Regiment were required to undertake a forced march from Galway to Dublin to help put down the unrest. For the rest of the year and during the whole of 1804 the 36th were stationed in Dublin. From June 1804 until September 1804 John was confined to the Regimental Hospital. Whether this was as a result of illness or a wound is not known.

Throughout most of 1805 the 36th were still required to police Dublin. In August they moved out to Curragh of Kildare and from there on to Cork. On 29 October 1805 they sailed for Germany.


At some time during his military career, John married. It seems likely that it was during his second tour of duty in Ireland that he met and married his wife Margaret. This is borne out by the fact that their first child, Maria, was born in Fermoy in 1806. His wife, therefore, had not been able to accompany him on the campaign to Germany. This was because only five women per Company could be taken on the ration strength. Selection was by ballot at the port of departure. Those wives who did accompany their husbands abroad played an important part in camp life by washing, cooking and mending, not only for their husbands but for his comrades as well. When the Regiment was in barracks, married quarters consisted of sections of barrack rooms partitioned off by blankets slung on ropes, providing minimal privacy. Here children were born, often with the father's comrades standing around watching and smoking clay pipes.

The expedition to Germany took John to Branstead and Bokell. The Regiment was only in this area for two months and no engagements with the enemy took place. In February they returned to England and landed at Ramsgate.

In the Autumn of 1806 a much more adventurous campaign was launched. On 12 November 1806 a large fleet of British warships, containing a considerable fighting force left England under the command of Brigadier-General Robert Crawford. On 11 January 1807 they arrived for a stop-over at St. Jago in the Cape Verde Islands. On 22 March they reached Table Bay on the Cape of Good Hope where the troops were landed for refreshment and exercise. On 4 April they set sail again and arrived at St. Helena on 21 April. On the 26th they embarked once more and on 14 June 1807 arrived at Montevideo in South America. On 28 June the troops were landed at Ensenado da Baragon (32 miles from Buenos Aires) and from there they marched towards Buenos Aires. On the 5th the attack on the city was begun. The attack was vigorously resisted and during this action the Captain of John Browness' Company, Henry Vernon, was wounded. In the end, the British withdrew and on 9 September they embarked from Montevideo for Europe, arriving at Cork on 17 December 1807.

The Regiment marched to Fermoy where John, in February 1808 would have seen his daughter, now nearly two years old, for the first time. His time with his family, however, was short-lived for on 5 July 1808 the Regiment marched back to Cork for embarkation to the Iberian Peninsula under Sir Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington.


Up to this point all of John's military career had taken him into conflict with Napoleon's allies or had been concerned with domestic and defensive actions. Now he was to come face-to-face with the mighty French army in the major theatre of war - the Peninsular campaign.

On 1 August 1808 the 36th, together with many other British Regiments landed at Figuiera in Portugal and from there marched on to Lisbon. On 17 August a major victory was won against the French at Rolica where the enemy was forced to retreat to Torres Vedras. On 21 August the British advanced to Vimiera where they were attacked by the French under Marshall Junot. Again the British were victorious and, as a result, the French evacuated Portugal. In this battle the 36th gained particular distinction to the extent that Wellesley wrote: "I cannot avoid to add that the regular and orderly conduct of this corps throughout this service and their gallantry and discipline in action have been conspicuous. The 36th Regiment is an example to the army". Wellesley was soon to be replaced as Commander in Chief of the British Peninsular army by Sir John Moore.

Moore decided to advance on Madrid. A division consisting of the 36th, 71st and 92nd under Lt. Gen. John Hope set off on 27 October 1808. Via Badajoz and Talavera-de-la-Reyna they reached the Escurial (7 leagues north-west of Madrid) on 22 November 1808. They halted here as it was learned that a large army under Napoleon himself was approaching Madrid. The Division moved across the Guadarama mountains on 27 November towards Villa Castin. They then undertook a night march by Avila and Peneranda to Alba-de-Tormes. At this point they joined up with Sir John Moore's army and advanced on Valladolid. The British army was now 29,000 strong.

However, things now started to go disastrously wrong. By 21 December they were at Toro and continued their advance. On the 23rd it was learned that Napoleon had entered Madrid on 4 December with a huge army. The prospect of confronting this army was unthinkable and the decision was made to retreat. The British army's only hope was to retreat to Corunna where transports would be waiting to evacuate the army from the Peninsula. The retreat was undertaken in appalling conditions. It was mid-winter, the army had to cross mountainous terrain and they were being pursued by a menacing foe. Many died of exhaustion and exposure. Most had to march in their bare feet as their boots had long since been worn out and there was no time to effect repairs. Added to this the local population who had earlier greeted the British as liberators now turned hostile.

Miraculously the bedraggled army reached Corunna on 11 January 1809 where sure enough the Royal Navy were waiting to evacuate them. However, the French were now within striking distance and on 16 January, as the weary troops were embarking the transports, they attacked. Sir John Moore quickly arranged his army in battle formation and the 36th were posted on the left of the British line. An heroic rearguard action was fought which allowed the majority of the army to escape to safety. In the battle of Corunna, however, Sir John Moore was killed and the French, recognising his heroism, erected a monument in his honour. John and his comrades finally escaped from Corunna on 17 January 1809.


If ever the expression "out of the frying pan - into the fire" was appropriate, what happened next must surely justify it. Having been forced out of the Peninsula the British Government decided to launch an attack in a completely different part of Europe. In February 1809 a large British force of 40,000 men was being assembled at Battle in Sussex. This army was to be commanded by the Earl of Chatham, who happened to be the Prime Minister's brother. He had very little else to commend him by way of military qualification or experience.

The plan was to seize the Dutch island of Walcheren and from there advance with a view to capturing Antwerp. This would be a diversion for Napoleon who at the time was preoccupied in the Peninsula.

The expedition started auspiciously enough. The large fleet sailed on 28 July 1809 and the troops invaded Walcheren island on 1 August. On 15 August the town of Flushing surrendered. But here Chatham hesitated. Rather than push on to Antwerp he remained where he was - and, unwittingly, was the author of the disaster which was about to strike.

Holland and its islands is, of course, a flat land. The sea is held at bay by dykes. The French, in an attempt to slow down the British advance destroyed a good number of the dykes turning the land on which the British were based into swamp land.

Within days hundreds and then thousands of British soldiers were struck down by a mysterious illness. This illness was malaria as the swamps had given rise to a plague of malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Of course at the time it was not known that this was the cause of the malady.

The expedition quickly became a major disaster and on 10 December those men who were able embarked for England. The following figures portray the extent of the debacle:

Officers Other Ranks
Embarked for Walcheren 1,738 37,481
Killed in action 7 99
Died in service 40 2,041
Died since sent home 20 1,859
Total returned home 1,671 33,373
Numbers sick at 1.2.1810 217 11,296

John was one of those who was bitten by a mosquito but who was fortunate enough to survive. Having said that, his health was ruined and he spent the next nine months in hospital. He was never to see active service again. Wellington gave an order that no soldier who had been at Walcheren was to take part again in the Peninsular campaign, so unreliable had their health become.

The following is an extract from a book called "The Recollections of Rifleman Harris" which is an account of an ordinary soldier's experiences of the Napoleonic Wars. He too, was at Walcheren and must have experienced exactly the same fate as John:

"The first I observed of it (the illness) was one day as I sat in my billet, when I beheld whole parties of our Riflemen in the street shaking with a sort of ague, to such a degree that they could hardly walk; strong and fine young men who had been but a short time in the service seemed suddenly reduced in strength to infants, unable to stand upright - so great a shaking had seized upon their bodies from head to heel. Hardly a man had stomach for the bread that was served to him, or even to taste his grog."

Rifleman Harris goes on to recall his own experience:

"At that moment I felt struck with a deadly faintness, shaking all over like an aspen, and my teeth chattering in my head so that I could hardly hold my rifle."

Many died, either immediately, or later in England. The nature of the ailment was such that it recurred often and many years later. Its debilitating effects therefore, as we have seen, rendered its victims useless for further active service.

John spent the rest of his army career recruiting in England. In 1811 he transferred from the 1st to the 2nd Battalion of the 36th Regiment and this event is of great significance to the Browness family. Throughout his career in the 1st Battalion his name was always spelt "BRONNESS". As soon as he transferred to the 2nd Battalion his name began to be recorded as "BROWNESS". Thus, the muster roll entry for 24 March 1811 is the very first time that the current spelling of the family name was used. This means that 24 March 1986 will be the 175th Anniversary of the name "BROWNESS".

In 1812 John Browness was recruiting in the town of Newhaven, Sussex and here his second daughter, Susan, was born. Recruiting parties consisted of an officer, two sergeants, a drummer and from two to five privates. These men were supposed to have been chosen for their smart appearance and were permitted to wear bunches of national ribbons pinned to their caps. In reality they appear to have been comprised of those whose health disqualified them from active service.

From 1813 to 1814 John recruited in Maidstone where his first son, George, was born. In October 1814, the 2nd Battalion disbanded and those who were fit to do so, transferred back to the 1st Battalion. 1815 saw John recruiting in Chelmsford and then again in Maidstone. The following year the Regiment were stationed at Portsmouth during which time John was once again confined to hospital due to his recurring illness.

On 15 May 1817 John was discharged from the service of the army due, according to his discharge certificate: "in consequence of being afflicted with visceral disease contracted in the service, from repeated attacks of intermittent fever to which he is still subject and has been ever since he was at Walcheren."

His conduct is described as "very good". His appearance is described as "Five feet nine inches in height, brown hair, grey eyes, fresh complexion and by trade or occupation a labourer". He was, in fact, quite a tall man for his time. The majority of soldiers in the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Centuries were under 5' 6" tall. A man of 5' 10" would have been in the top 10% in terms of height.


Discharged from the Army, a weak man with a wife and three young children, John's first course of action was to register as an out-patient of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea. As a result he was paid a pension of 9d a day.

The Browness family then made the journey to John's old home village of Ampney Crucis. Somewhere along the way a second son, James, was born. Soon after arriving in the village, their second daughter Susan died, aged only five years.

Of the rest of John's life little is known. Whenever he was fit enough he would have taken whatever work he could find, no doubt in agricultural labouring. But he was now a sick man and in 1824, at the age of 40, he died.

His immediate family settled in Ampney Crucis. We know nothing of Maria, his eldest daughter - it is possible she died in infancy or even in the retreat from Corunna along with many other poor souls who were unable to keep up. James died at the age of 12 in Ampney Crucis.

Margaret, John's wife, lived on to the age of 70 and is buried, along with John, Susan and James, in Ampney Crucis churchyard.

Ampney Crucis Church

George Browness, the first of the "Georges", lived in Ampney Crucis at a cottage called "Ford Villa" until at least 1851. His mother having died in 1845, he would have been the only surviving member of the family living in Ampney Crucis at that time. Soon afterwards he went to London, where, at the somewhat advanced age of 40, he met and married Mary Foster. They had two children before he returned to Ampney Crucis. In 1871 he was living at Hilcott End Cottage but he died the following year in Cirencester workhouse. He, too, is buried in the graveyard of Ampney Crucis. There is, however, no stone to mark the spot where any of these ancestors are buried.

© S.J. Browness, 1985