10 February 2009

The rise and fall of Sergeant Skinner

Yesterday after a stroll through St James' Park I visited the Guards Museum, which is devoted to the long and colourful history of the famous British Army Guards regiments. The five regiments of Foot Guards (the Grenadier Guards, Coldstream Guards, and the Scots, Irish and Welsh Guards) and the two regiments of the Household Cavalry are all celebrated in the museum's displays, from the earliest 17th century battle orders consisting of musketmen protected by pike-wielding infantry through to modern coalition operations in southern Afghanistan.

It's not a particularly high-tech museum: most of its displays are simply medals, weapons and paintings of famous battle scenes. It doesn't need to be high-tech because it contains plenty of interesting tales from the long history of the regiments. Aside from the usual heroism of the much-feted officer class, I was particularly taken by the story of Sergeant J. Skinner who was a member of the King's Company, First Guards during the ill-fated Walcheren expedition of 1809. In this expedition the British hoped to secure the Scheldt estuary in the Netherlands and destroy the French fleet located upstream at Flushing (now Vlissingen). But it soon turned to disaster as the low-lying terrain was flooded by the defenders and thousands of British troops were lost to a virulent and highly contagious fever.

One glimmer of hope for the British Army was the actions of Sergeant Skinner. When the Army took Fort Batz from its French defenders, the fort's 12 artillery pieces had been 'spiked' to render them unusable to the enemy. However, Skinner volunteered to repair the guns, and devised his own tools on the spot to carry out the task. All 12 guns were returned to service and trained on their former owners. For this feat of engineering Skinner was awarded a distinguished conduct medal, which would probably have been paid for out of the pockets of his officers, because the Army did not issue service medals for bravery at that time. Skinner's medals were on display in the museum (see picture, bottom of p.33 of this document), along with a fine-looking portrait of the man. He was later promoted to the role of recruiting sergeant.

It was in this role that Skinner's star waned. Less than a decade after his heroics at Fort Batz, Skinner was convicted of defrauding the Army by amending three £5 cheques to read £15 - a most serious crime of embezzlement. He was given 300 lashes and broken in rank, becoming a private soldier once more, and presumably cursed his greed and foolishness for the remainder of his Army career.

Another interesting aspect of the Guards' history was the long-standing tradition known as the Bank Picquet (picket) in which Guardsmen secured the Bank of England against ne'er-do-wells. This was first ordered in response to the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots in June 1780, and the nightly task continued for nearly two centuries until it finally ceased in 1973. This report from the New York Times of 28 March 1880 records the spectacle:

One of the most curious "guards" in London is that which is termed the "Bank Picquet", and which proceeds to take up its nightly quarters inside the Bank of England every evening at 7 o'clock all the year round, remaining there until 7 the next morning. It is an officer's guard and consists beside of a drummer, two Sergeants and over 30 men. Each man receives a shilling from the bank authorities immediately on his arrival, the Sergeant's share being 2s. The officer is allowed a dinner, laid for two, with three bottles of wine, and is permitted to invite a friend. The guard or picquet is comfortably housed, each man being "served out" with a watchcoat and a blanket; and the sentries are posted during the night at the bullion vaults and the counting-house parlor.

Three bottles of wine! Now that's what I call a tough billet.

[Pic: Guards Museum website]

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