Sunday, February 12, 2023

Joseph and Mary Whitaker, 17th Regiment of Foot, make their claims

A few miles southwest of Dublin is a village called Kill, in County Kildare. In 1736, Joseph Whitaker was born there. He grew up to pursue the trade of a whitesmith, crafting metal into products with shiny surface finishes. This was a good trade, but for some reason not enough for the young Irishman; at the age of twenty he enlisted in the army.

His skill and education served him well as a professional soldier. After nine years, he was a sergeant, the highest rank that most common soldiers could expect to achieve, and one in which afforded numerous opportunities for earning extra money over and above the base pay. By 1772 he was in the 17th Regiment of Foot, a regiment that had spent ten years in North America, first participating in the sieges of Louisbourg in 1758, Ticonderoga in 1759, Montreal in 1760, then in the West Indies, and on the American frontier during Pontiac's Rebellion. It is not known whether Whitaker was in the 17th during this time, or served in a different regiment before joining the 17th. Whether he had been to America before or not, in late 1775 he embarked with his regiment for Boston to reinforce the British garrison that was besieged there.

The 17th Regiment of Foot disembarked in Boston in December 1775. Joseph Whitaker served in the regiment's grenadier company. Detached from the regiment and joined with other grenadier companies to form a grenadier battalion, Whitaker's company was in the forefront of many of the war's most fierce and famous battles. He came through it all unscathed. And his time in America brought more good fortune to him.

The British grenadier battalions spent most of the second half of the war quartered in the area of New York City. Probably during that time, he met Mary Williams, a widow who had lived in the city "prior to and during the troubles." She ran a business "in the public line" - probably referring to a public house or tavern - and did well enough to purchase property "in her own right for ever." Her holdings amounted to between four and five hundred pounds, a testament to her enterprise. She married Sergeant Whitaker, who by this time may have accumulated a fair amount of cash from his work for the army. In terms of prosperity, their future looked bright.

No amount of marital optimism, however, could overcome the tide of events for the British military and Loyalist citizens in America. By 1783 the war was lost. The army and a large number of inhabitants were forced to abandon the city of New York. Joseph and Mary Whitaker left their property "to the mercy of the rebels," and sailed with the 17th Regiment to Halifax, Nova Scotia. They didn't stay there long. A reduction in forces afforded Sergeant Whitaker the opportunity to be discharged. 

The couple went to England, where Joseph Whitaker went before the army pension examining board at Chelsea, near London, in February 1784, and was awarded a pension. This would afford a modest but sufficient income for them. Mary Whitaker made a claim to have her losses compensated by the British government, but hers was one of thousands of such claims. Whether she ever received any payment is not known.

Information in this installment come from the muster rolls of the 17th Regiment of Foot (WO 12), the army out-pension admission books (WO 116), and Audit Office records (AO 13), all in The National Archives of Great Britain.

Learn more about British Soldiers in the American Revolution