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A Trunk and Letters in a Canvas Cutlery Holder

Surviving letters written in 1854/5 by Colour Sergeant George Clarke and sent to his wife Mary Anne in Corfu and England, which sparked the research into a family history.

'From very early in my life I was aware of the existence of my Great Grandfather's letters, folded in a bundle inside his tattered canvas cutlery holder. This in turn was kept in an old wooden chest, later discovered to be George's army trunk. The chest was always placed in the bay window in my parents' bedroom draped with a custom-made cover.


The chest was always there; the letters were always there but it was not until many years later that I started to read them properly and to set out to discover more about the writer and my ancestors.'



' George Clarke was born in 1823 in the small village of Eastry in Kent, the fourth son in a family of seven boys.


The Clarke family had originated in Minster-in-Thanet, poor farm labourers. George's father Daniel had moved to Eastry around 1812 to seek work. In 1816 he married Sarah Belsey from the neighbouring village of Northbourne and the following year their first son was born.


The early 1800s was a desperate period for England's agricultural workers. The Corn Laws, the Enclosure Act and high taxes on farmers all resulted in severe poverty and hardship for the labourers.


The Clarke family were no exception. Work was hard to come by and Daniel and his family were at times living in a charity poor relief house and also the Eastry workhouse.


A way of lifting some of the older boys out of abject poverty was to enlist them into the Army or Navy where they would at least have a chance of some education and a trade. George and his brother Daniel did just that. George enlisted in the 34th Regiment of Foot at Colchester in Essex in 1841 aged 18 years and 2 months. His army record describes him as 5 feet 9 inches in height with fair hair, a fair complexion and light blue eyes.


There are no surviving personal records of George's early army career but information gleaned from a published early historical account of the 34th Regiment shows them serving in a number of overseas posts including Ireland, Gibraltar, Barbados and Trinidad.


It is assumed that whilst posted in Gibraltar in 1850 George became a Freemason of a branch of the Dublin Lodge for which a handsome parchment registration certificate survives.


Similarly, there is no account of how he met his future wife, Mary Anne Russell of Purbrook in Hampshire whom he married on the 30th July 1853 at St. Paul's Church, Chichester, close to the barracks where he was currently stationed.


Thus began a short, very happy time for the couple but overshadowed by the death of their newborn first son in 1854.


By the late summer of 1854 George, by now a Colour Sergeant, received orders to proceed with the regiment to Corfu, one of the Ionian Islands off the west coast of mainland Greece. Mary Anne was to accompany him. They sailed from Portsmouth on 23rd August on the 'Mauritius.'


It was an idyllic time for them on an island which more than a century and a half later has become a popular holiday destination. They were comfortably situated in pleasant quarters with many friends among the other Colour Sergeants, Sergeants and Quartermasters and their wives, with the other ranks serving as batmen and waiting on the Sergeants and their wives. The boy from the workhouse had made good!


Then everything changed and their happy life was swept away. In November George with his regiment was ordered to the Crimea where war was already raging between the English, French and Turks against the Russians.


The 34th with 21 officers, 35 sergeants, 11 drummers and 554 rank and file under the command of Major Arthur Goodenough departed Corfu on the 'Sydney' on the 22nd November and landed at Balaclava on the 9th December. The battles of Alma, Balaclava, and Inkerman had already been fought but there were more horrors to come.


Mary Anne was distraught: she was alone in a foreign land; her beloved husband had sailed away to war; they were perhaps never to meet again and she had discovered that she was expecting their second child. Although only George's letters survive, the strength of their love for one another and the support that they gave to each other shines through the letters, only ending with George's tragic death in June 1855.


(Mary Anne eventually returned from Corfu on the 'Dunbar' in March 1855 and first went to live with her parents in North Street, Havant, Hampshire where her father George Russell was a publican. George Daniel was born in August that year and baptised at St. Faith's Havant.)


Mary Anne later moved to Eastry and married George's brother Henry in May 1859 in Walmer and bore him a daughter and a son. Henry died in Seal Chart in 1882.


Mary Anne died in Portsmouth after a somewhat roaming life in various parts of southern England but everywhere she went, so went George's trunk with the letters wrapped up in the cutlery bag.'

Owner of originalBy very kind permission of Anne Beal
Linked toGeorge CLARKE; Mary Ann RUSSELL

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