(illegible) memory/Osmond John Macmillan
Barbara Ann MacMillan/widow of the above/who died January 4th 1900/in her 77th year
Although William MacMillan’s name has now faded, we know that he is buried in this plot, since his widow’s epitaph refers to him, and a photograph of his grave (then in better condition) appears in the edited version of his diaries.
William MacMillan was born a long way from Hythe, in Dumfries in April 1825. His father was a farmer, and William himself went to work for another farmer at nearby Ellisland. Remarkably, we know exactly what it looked like, as it has been very much sketched and photographed and is now a museum, kept as it was two hundred years ago. It was the home of Robert Burns for a couple of years during his most creative period and where he wrote Auld Lang Syne
Ellisland as it was during the lifetime of Robert Burns
Ellisland as it is today
By the time William MacMillan got there it was owned by a Mr Taylor, who thought very highly of him. When William left him in 1844, he wrote:
‘He kept good company, was sober, honest and of good character. He attended church regularly. I hope he will not depart from the path of virtue’.
William went off to become, of all things, a tea dealer and somehow made his way to Taunton, in Somerset. Perhaps he was not a very successful tea dealer, because in another abrupt change of direction, he joined the Coldstream Guards in 1848, when he was twenty three years old.
For the next ten years he served as a private, and just before the outbreak of the Crimean War he was sent down to Hythe, to the School of Musketry. It seems likely that it was then that he met the Hythe woman he was to marry, Barbara Ann Elgar, although that would be a few years later.
After the School of Musketry, he was promoted to corporal and was sent to the Crimea, where war had broken out the previous year, 1853
What is remarkable about William is that during his time there he kept a diary, which he brought home with him and which was given after his death to the Coldstream Guards who put it in their archives. There it was discovered in the 1980s, by Keith Hingle, who transcribed most of the entries, and filled in the background to Sgt. McMillans’s life with the help of the late Jack Barker, a Hythe historian.
A page of William’s Crimea diary
William travelled to Crimea via Malta, where he was very impressed with the cheapness of the rum and brandy and of the cigars, and very daringly he had a dip in the sea. He liked the island very much, but on Sunday 2nd of April 1854 he writes:
Most beautiful morning, sea so calm there is not even a ripple upon it. Not a breath of air stirring. Oh how I should like to be at Hythe with Barbara.
At the end of April he sailed for Constantinople, now Istanbul. He thought it ‘the most wretched place I was ever in’. It was crowded and dirty and there were snakes and lizards and he didn’t like the Turks and disapproved of the way the women covered their faces. It is in Istanbul that he starts to write the diary as if he is addressing someone, and I think that the diary forms a long letter to Barbara in Hythe.
After Istanbul, he was sent to Varna, which is in modern day Bulgaria. He didn’t like it there either. There were more snakes and lizards , and clouds of locusts, and the locals kept black people as slaves which he disapproved of. There were continual outbreaks of cholera.
It got worse.
In September 1854, just I time for winter, he sailed to the Crimea and started the march to Balaclava and on to the siege of Sebastopol. Someone stole his socks and he had to spend that bitterly cold winter without any, as apparently the army did not provide spare pairs, He describes one night sleeping outside without a tent.
‘I was wet through, my blanket was wet and I lay shivering on the cold ground. I could not sleep. It blew a hurricane and the rain descended in most drenching showers all night.’
Later, the rain stopped and it started to snow. The men got lice, there was no wood to light fires and they lived on half-rations of biscuit and salt meat. Unsurprisingly, dysentery and frostbite were rife.
Eventually, in spring, William was sent back to Balaclava. There he saw, for the first time ever, a western woman wearing trousers. She was French, of course.
Then it was back to the front. It got hot again and there was another epidemic of cholera, but he survived the war and saw the fall of Sevastopol.
The ‘official’ version of the Coldstream Guards after Crimea
Another view of the Guards after the war, recovering at their barracks in London
After the Crimea, William came home, was promoted to sergeant, signed on for another 11 years in the army and came to Hythe to marry his Barbara. She was the daughter of Henry Elgar, a Hythe smith, and his wife Eliza. The family lived in Chapel Street in Hythe. She married William Macmillan in London in 1858 and stayed with him when he was posted in the London area for some time after that. Their four children were born there.
However, in 1868 William was discharged as unfit for service, suffering from paralysis in his left leg. The authorities decided that this must have been brought on by his experiences in the Crimea and awarded him a pension of two shillings a day. William and Barbara went back to live in Hythe, where Barbara had family, and set up home in Park Road,
A doctor friend, however, tells me that it sounds as though he was suffering from motor neurone disease. He lived for another twenty five years, but the paralysis grew worse, and for some years before his death he was immobile, though unaffected in his mind. He died in 1893.
It must have been hard for him. He had seen his younger son, Osmond (who is buried with him) die young, and had to apply to a local charity, Weller’s Gift, to get his older son tools for an apprenticeship. Although money was tight, the one thing he never sold were his Crimea medals, with four clasps, for Alma, Sevastopol, Inkerman and Balaclava.
Sources: Keith Hingle: The Diary of Sgt W.Macmillan: The Coldstream Guards (undated)