When John Ward boarded the warship HMS Iris in Halifax, Nova Scotia on 16 February 1779, he probably thought he had fought his last fight. He was going home to Great Britain, having spent seventeen years as a soldier and suffered a wound somewhere along the way. At the age of fifty-four, his soldiering days were over, but he was heading towards one last conflict.
Ward was Irish, a Belfast native born in 1725. Most of his military career has not been determined. He probably enlisted during the Seven Years War, maybe before, and then was discharged. Part way through the American Revolution he answered the call for volunteers to join the 74th Regiment of Foot, a new regiment authorized in December 1777 and raised largely in Argyllshire. Like many new-raised regiments, its ranks were filled by a mix of new recruits and experienced veterans; men like Ward, with prior military experience, insured that the corps would quickly be ready for the demands of foreign service in spite of being newly created.
The regiment recruited throughout the first half of 1778, and sailed for Nova Scotia in August of that year. Once in Halifax, Ward’s age and injuries apparently caught up with him; he may have been wounded somehow during his brief time in the 74th Regiment, or had a lingering disability from a wound received in the past. Before the regiment went to a war zone, he and a few others from the 74th were “invalided” - discharged because they were not deemed fit for service. In February he and the other invalids, still in Halifax, embarked for the journey home.
Ward and his comrades disembarked from Iris in Portsmouth on 20 March, and by 25 March were in London. They took rooms for the night at a tavern in Westminster where “we laid down our knapsacks, and drank pretty heartily.”
Lodging in the same place was John Close, a soldier in the 3rd Regiment of Foot Guards. He ate and drank with the veterans, and said he was an Irishman like Ward. The next morning, Ward and his comrades went to the War Office and received billets for quarters in Chelsea, where they would go before the pension board. Returning to the tavern, they met up with Close again, who accompanied them to Chelsea that afternoon.
After finding the billets at Chelsea, Ward and Close went to a local tavern, ate, and drank some beer. Ward drew out his leather pocketbook which contained about two months’ pay that he’d received when he was discharged, and paid the bill. He then left Close and returned to the previous night’s tavern where he wanted to spend some of his money, as the owner had given him a free meal the night before. Close arrived later on. Some time and two pots of beer later, Close agreed to walk Ward, now somewhat tipsy, back to Chelsea.
Along the way, Close pulled Ward off the road. In the darkness, he grabbed Ward’s lame arm, which had no strength due to its wound, leaving Ward unable to effectively resist. Close reached into Ward’s breast pocket and took the pocketbook full of cash that he had seen earlier that day. Ward, with the coolness of a veteran soldier, asked for the pocketbook back, but chose not to pursue or cry out when Close went off into the night. He knew where Close lived, knew he could identify him, realized that he might leave town if he feared pursuit, and recognized that his own lameness and inebriated state rendered him unable to best Close in a confrontation. Ward knew his best chance at recovering the pocketbook was to remain calm.
John Close returned to his quarters early the next morning, and went to his room to prepare for his duties as a soldier that day. Soon after, John Ward and several of his comrades arrived and told the tavern owner what Close had done. The owner summoned Close, who denied the charge, but while Close talked with his accusers the owner went to his room and found the pocket book hidden in a closet.
John Close was brought to trial at the Old Bailey in London the following week, on April 4, 1779. John Ward told his story and described exactly how much money was in the pocketbook. The keeper of the tavern where Close lodged testified, as did the keepers of two other taverns where Close had spent money freely on the night of the theft. The pocketbook was shown to the court.
Close offered only a brief defense, claiming that Ward had given him money but offering no explanation of how he came to possess the pocketbook. He called on his sergeant as a character witness, but the sergeant said only that Close had been in the regiment for a year, and that he knew nothing else of him. This was no defense at all, and the court found Close guilty of theft. He was sentence to “navigation,” a year of hard labor dredging the Thames River to improve its navigability.
The court records don’t state whether John Ward recovered all of his money, but he did go before the pension board on 17 June and received a pension.
The trial transcript contains two errors, which show the challenges of relying even on primary sources when piecing together historical events. Ward sailed from Halifax to Portsmouth on HMS Iris, as confirmed by that ship’s muster books, but the court recorder wrote that he came from America on the ship Halifax - an easy mistake to make. The transcript also says that Ward called himself “a soldier in General Burgoyne’s regiment.” This statement is difficult to interpret, since General Burgoyne was colonel of the 16th Light Dragoons and had no connection with the 74th Regiment. The tavern keeper said that “John Ward, with several others belonging to the 74th regiment of foot” lodged at his place, and the Iris muster books and the pension board examination records list Ward as belonging to the 74th Regiment. The 74th Regiment’s muster rolls are incomplete for this time period, but there is no apparent connection between General Burgoyne and the 74th Regiment, or any indication that men were transferred from Burgoyne’s regiment to the 74th. For now, the discrepancy is a curious quirk in the historical record.