Many of these articles take as their starting point one of the hundred or so letters written or received by my 3x great uncle Charles Castle of Bristol, preserved in his writing case and now, a hundred and fifty years later, in my keeping.
The correspondence builds up a picture of his character, his family and business associates, and his life both domestic and international. I only have one portrait of him, a stern, slightly pompous figure in a uniform; and there’s no way of knowing whether it captures the man at all. It’s lazy, but only natural, to assume that it does.
Captain Charles Castle (1813-1886)
I always refer to him in these articles as Captain, the rank he attained in October 1852, although in 1862, towards the end of his military career he was promoted to Second Major. He served in the Royal North Gloucester Militia, a periodic, non-professional regiment, the sort of unit that was the forerunner of today’s Territorial Army Reserves.
At the end of the eighteenth century it had been mobilised to deal with insurrection in Ireland; and in the early nineteenth it was stationed on the south coast of England against an expected French invasion. All this was before Charles Castle was born, and when the French were defeated at Waterloo in 1815 the regiment was mothballed for thirty seven years.
It was raised again in July 1852, at the outbreak of the Crimean War, and it must have been then that Charles signed up. No sooner was the Crimean action concluded than the Indian Mutiny broke out, and the North Gloucesters were pressed into service once again – not in India but in Ireland where they relieved regular troops which were required in the subcontinent.
The Band of the Royal North Gloucester Militia, marching in Cirencester in the 1860s
Charles was by now a prominent local businessman, a wine importer, a solicitor, and a Liberal campaigner. There’s no suggestion among his papers that he was among the six hundred men of the regiment who actually went to the Crimea to fight in two drafts in 1854 and 1856; or that he was himself posted to Dublin in 1857.
Perhaps he would have liked to go to war – he was still a batchelor (he married in 1861), and he may have felt he had missed out on the Crimean and Indian campaigns. The regiment was stood down again in 1858. In 1959 it is his name at the bottom of a printed invitation from Bristol Town Council summoning the city’s respectable citizens to a meeting:
Bristol, 24th January 1859
The MAYOR having had under consideration the propriety of forming a RIFLE CLUB or CORPS in this City, I am directed to request the favor [sic] of your attendance here at Two p.m. on Wednesday the 2nd February, to discuss the subject.
I am, Sir,
There was a new threat of French invasion, because France had discovered that an assassination attempt on the life of her emperor Napoleon III had used bombs made in Birmingham. Charles Castle’s initiative in Bristol was part of a wider national sentiment which resulted on the 12th May 1859 in the Secretary of State for War Jonathan Peel giving the go-ahead for the formation of volunteer rifle corps in every county, and of volunteer artillery corps in coastal towns.
Felice Orsini, campaigning for the Union of Italy, tried to assassinate Napoleon III on 14th January 1858 with the backing of English radicals; one bomb exploded under the emperor’s coach, killing eight and wounding one hundred and fifty people (painting by the Italian artist Vittori Romano in 1862)
Charles wasted no time following Peel’s announcement. Only two days later he wrote to Daniel Burges, Bristol’s Town Clerk,
4 Carlton Place Mall
Clifton 14 May 1859
Dear Mr Town Clerk,
May I request the favour of your inserting my name in the list of men ready to form a Volunteer Rifle Corps in this City. This of course must be subject to my obtaining permission to hold a Commission at the same time I retain my Captaincy in the R.N.G.M. which I do not much doubt.
As I take great interest in its formation it will give me much satisfaction to afford any assistance in my power to the Mayor and yourself to promote its success and I should be ready to attach myself to a Rifle Battalion to perfect myself in the drill etc (which is rather different to ours) before the Bristol Corps is called out. This would enable me better to instruct others.
Believe me Dear Mr Town Clerk
Yours very truly
There writes a man prepared to do whatever it takes to play his military part. Frustratingly there are no further references to the Rifle Corps in Charles’s papers. But given that the North Gloucesters were still inactive at the time of his promotion to Second Major in 1862, I’m inclined to think that he was elevated while on secondment to the Corps.
A Gloucestershire Rifles volunteer – two Corps were formed in the wake of Peel’s announcement, the 1st Gloucestershire (City of Bristol) Rifle Volunteers and the 2nd Gloucestershire Rifle Volunteers
In 1872 all militias and volunteer corps, which had been regulated by the Home Office, were placed more logically under War Office control. The Royal North Gloucester Militia became the reserve battalion for the 28th (North Gloster) Regiment, and, after a further restructuring exercise in 1881, simply the 4th Battalion of a new Royal Gloucestershire Regiment. Across the country the Volunteer Rifle Corps replaced the militias as reserve battalions for the new county regiments, a new level of legitimacy for Captain Castle’s Volunteers which he lived long enough to witness.