Skip to main content

Benjamin Harris - Dorset Rifleman

Benjamin Randell Harris was a rifleman who served in the British Army between 1803 and 1814. Born in Portsmouth, his family moved to Stalbridge in North Dorset when he was still a child. His father, Robert was a shepherd and Benjamin as a youngster would help tend the sheep across the Blandford Downs.  Later, Benjamin would train as a cobbler.

In 1803, Benjamin was selected by ballot to join the British Army for which he was paid a bounty of eleven pounds. Forty five years later, a book would be published recounting his army experiences. Like most ordinary soldiers of the time, he was illiterate so he related his memories to Captain Henry Curling who produced the book – A Dorset Rifleman. It is one of the few accounts of the life of a common soldier of the time. During his service, he was randomly selected to be part of a firing squad to execute a deserter – an experience understandingly, he found particularly disturbing.

Benjamin Harris served in Ireland, Denmark and in the Spanish Peninsular War. Unlike many of his comrades, he survived these conflicts unhurt but the sights and horrors he witnessed remained with him for the rest of his life. In his next expedition to Walcheren, on the Dutch coast, he was less fortunate whose aim was to make the port of Antwerp unusable to the French Navy. It was a disaster. In a force of 40,000, 4,000 died and 12,000 became permanently disabled mainly due to diseases such as dysentery, cholera and malaria. Benjamin Harris was one of them. He survived only because he was able to buy extra medical care financed by income from additional work as a cobbler. However, he was now unfit for military service and was discharged from the army. As a result he lost his accrued military pension of sixpence (2.5p) per day which he had not yet drawn. From thereon, he worked as a cobbler. In his discharge papers, he is described as 5ft 5ins tall with black hair, grey eyes and with a dark complexion.

It was when Benjamin Harris was working as a cobbler in Soho, London that Captain Curling sought him out and persuaded him to relate his memories for posterity. In May 1853, the United Services Gazette reported:

‘He (Benjamin Harris) fought at Copenhagen, the Netherlands and in the Peninsula. He was rendered unfit for service by the horrible Walcheren fever and yet he has no pension! At seventy-three years, he makes shoes in James Street, Golden-square and a hard matter it is to make and mend enough to keep life and soul together.’

It is understood that Benjamin Randell Harris died in 1858 and is buried in Bethnal Green, London.

(Source: A Dorset Rifleman – the Recollections of Benjamin Harris (1995) by Eileen Hathaway.)


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Chimney Sweep Tragedy

Crown Hotel, Blandford is reckoned to be one of Dorset’s oldest hostelries. Yet its most tragic day, during a long history, must surely be when a young chimney sweep lost his life. The chimney sweep, who was just a child, suffocated and was burnt to death in a Crown Hotel chimney which had been alight a little while before. ‘His cries were dreadful and no-one could give assistance. Part of the chimney was taken down before he was got out.’ (Salisbury & Winchester Gazette 27th March 1780) The lad had gone up one chimney and attempting to go down another had become stuck. At the time children were used to climb up chimneys to clean out soot deposits. With hands and knees, they would shimmy up narrow dark flue spaces packed thick with soot and debris. After the 1731 Great Fire of Blandford it was realised that it was important to sweep chimneys regularly while many rebuilt houses had narrower ones. Smaller chimneys and complicated flues were a potential death trap for children. The sw

Bravest Village Controversy

A Dorset village was once recognised as the bravest in England. That village was Shillingstone in North Dorset. After the outbreak of World War I, the newspaper the Weekly Dispatch inaugurated a competition for the village that sent, in the first six months of the war, the highest percentage of its population into the British Services. According to local newspaper, the Western Gazette Shillingstone sent 90 men out of a total population of 565. (Western Gazette Friday 26 th September 1919) Across the country,  365 other villages sent in their returns. However, the competition would not prove to be short of controversy. The award was made to Knowlton in Kent which with 39 inhabitants and six houses had sent 11 men. However, the Rector of Shillingstone, Dr Cooke protested that Knowlton was too small to be a village and in fact was a hamlet. The matter was referred to the Attorney General, Sir Frederick Smith who held that the original decision should stand as no minimum population ha

Tarrant Rushton's Nuclear Secret

Tarrant Rushton was a large RAF base used for glider operations during World War II. It was then taken over by Flight Refuelling for the conversion of aircraft for the development of aircraft in-flight refuelling. However, between 1958 & 1965, the Tarrant Rushton airfield had a much more secretive and less publicised role. This was in support of the nation’s nuclear bomber deterrent, as Tarrant Rushton airfield became a QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) dispersal unit.   During 1958, contractors Costain reinforced the main runway and carried out other work to ensure the giant bomber aircraft could be accommodated. At times just a few miles from Blandford, there would have been up to four RAF Vickers Valiant bombers at Tarrant Rushton ready to become airborne in minutes charged with nuclear weapons. The bombers were from 148 Squadron at RAF Marham in Norfolk. As there was no suitable accommodation at the airfield, an old US Air Force Hospital building at Martin was used. At the time, the