Monday, August 19, 2013

William Baylis, 53rd Regiment, escapes the butchers

The early military career of William Baylis, a laborer from Anvill in Staffordshire, is not known. Born in 1741, he joined the army at a young age in 1755 and apparently was discharged again twenty years later; we've found no record of where he served.

Like many career soldiers, after being discharged he enlisted in the army once again, this time joining the 53rd Regiment of Foot. The 53rd was in Ireland at the time, but Baylis may have enlisted with a recruiting party somewhere else in Great Britain. He joined his new regiment in Dublin on 21 April 1775 and probably expected a routine career given the length of time he'd already served.

Soldiers in Ireland, however, faced an imminent danger. Bands of ruffians attacked lone soldiers in the night, savagely cutting their achillies tendons with razors or cleavers in order to cripple the hapless soldiers. The practice was called houghing (pronounced "hocking"), a reference to the joint in an animal's leg corresponding to the human ankle; many of the attackers were Dublin butchers who worked in Ormonde Market. Modern scholars debate the motivation of these attacks, whether they were explicit responses to British treatment of the Irish, anti-military statements related to the American war, or simply extensions of the turf wars that plagued 18th century Ireland. For whatever reason, many unsuspecting soldiers were maimed between 1772 and 1788, primarily in Dublin in 1774, 1775 and 1776. The widespread attacks even even spawned a few instances of self-inflicted wounds by soldiers hoping to avoid wartime deployment and instead obtain a pension.

At about 9PM on 28 November 1775, William Baylis was making his way along the dark street towards Gallows Green in downtown Cork on his way home to the barracks where his regiment was quartered. According to a local newspaper,

On Saturday night last about nine o’clock, William Baylis, private soldier in the 53d regiment, was inhumanly assaulted by some bloody villains unknown, who came behind him and knocked him down, as he was coming peaceably to his barracks, and cut him desperately in two places on the left leg, with an intention to hough him, but providentially the tendent achilles was missed.  This horrid action was committed in the street leading to Gallows green, by ruffians supposed to be butchers, who immediately after made off into some of the cabbins in that street.

Although some houghers were caught and punished severely, usually executed, there is no evidence that these attackers ever answered for their crime. Baylis was fortunate that his assailants missed their mark. Not only was he not crippled, he recovered fully and was able to embark with the 53rd Regiment when it sailed for Quebec early the following year. The veteran soldier was fit enough to be transferred into the regiment's grenadier company in early 1777. With this company he served in the grenadier battalion of Burgoyne's army on the 1777 campaign towards Albany; the grenadiers were often engaged in heavy fighting.

By the end of the campaign Baylis had become a prisoner of war, but it is not clear whether he was among the soldiers surrendered at Saratoga or was taken at some other time. Regardless, he spent over four years as a prisoner of war before finally being repatriated in 1782. The extensive hardships he'd endured made him a prime candidate to be discharged when hostilities ended, but he did not choose that option. William Baylis remained in the ranks of the 53rd Regiment until June 1790 when he was finally discharged at the age of 49, having served 34 years and three months as a British soldier and by this time suffering from "chronic Rheumatism." He was granted the pension that he'd narrowly avoided receiving fifteen years earlier.

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