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"The Birmingham Button Salesman of Waterloo" Topic

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2,971 hits since 25 Jan 2012
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Alan Charlesworth25 Jan 2012 6:56 a.m. PST

In his book 'Wellington's Army in the Peninsula 1809 – 14', Stuart Reid refers to a point in the battle of Waterloo where he had run out of ADCs. At that moment he ran across a civilian who was a button salesman from Birmingham, who he pressed into service as a messenger. Reid says this is well authenticated but does not quote a source.

Does anyone know of the original sources for this story or any other authors who refer to it?

Corto Maltese25 Jan 2012 8:54 a.m. PST

I thought I'd remembered something from Elizabeth Longford's 'The Years of the Sword' and just found this (p 472), but she gives no sources:

"The Duke was running short of aides-de-camp. It was said that once or twice he was reduced to using stray civilians, with whom the battlefield was still supplied, to carry his messages – a young Swiss, perhaps a traveller in buttons from Birmingham, as well as a small Londoner on a pony who turned out to be a commercial traveller for a City firm."

Personal logo Artilleryman Supporting Member of TMP25 Jan 2012 11:23 a.m. PST

I believe that there is a Longford quote which goes along the lines of: 'An order for Blinks and Blinks? I am afraid not, but would you do me the service of riding to that gentleman there and telling him to refuse his right flank'.

arthur181525 Jan 2012 2:12 p.m. PST

IIRC David Chandler's book on Waterloo attributes the story to a magazine called Chatterbox and suggests that the veracity of the story may be deduced from said magazine's title…

Sparker25 Jan 2012 3:30 p.m. PST

Careful, the Welly haters do tend to clutch at straws; his lack of bullet proof ADC's might suggest shoddy staff work….along with not knowing beforehand what Napoleon's invasion route was going to be with sufficient certainty not to have to post covering troops along them all…

Alan Charlesworth25 Jan 2012 5:33 p.m. PST

@ Paul Cox

Paul I don't have that volume. Thanks for your quotation from the book. The quote certainly adds to the mystery.

@ arthur 1815

Thanks for that lead. I checked my copy. It has an illustration of what appears to be the full article in Chatterbox and the drawing that appeared with it of the encounter between Wellesley and 'the button seller'. Chandler ascribes it to the "legends that grew around the battle" and as you say does not give much credence to the story and says it is unauthenticated.

@ Sparker

Reid appears to give the story some credence based on the fact that Wellesley moved about so much on the battlefield that ADCs retuning to where they had left him would find him gone. Therefore not so much case of losing ADCs as casualties but more a case of them being lost on the battlefield Wellesley whereabouts unknown.


It would be nice if some of these romantic stories were true. However, without any reliable source to reference them to I suppose they have to be regarded with some skepticism.

It is probably the common phenomena with historical works where one author perpetuates the errors of another without bothering to check sources. It was Reid's claim that the story was well authenticated that piqued my interest.

uruk hai25 Jan 2012 6:27 p.m. PST

In Peter Hofschroer's 'Wellington's Smallest War' cites Sibourne's letters where Lt Colonel Blair (Brigade Major to Sir Frederick Adam) tells of the only ADC Wellington had at one point was a French officer attached by Louis XVIII who only spoke French.

Alan Charlesworth26 Jan 2012 5:41 a.m. PST

@ uruk hai

Thanks for that piece of information. I have looked it up in my copy of Siborne's letters. There are two pieces of correspondence from Blair that touch on this. I have quoted the relevant parts below for anyone interested:

"After the repulse of the Squares of the Old Guard (I do not exactly recollect the spot) Sir Frederick Adam desired me to ride on the prolongation of our right in order to observe if any part of the Enemy seemed to threaten our right flank – then apparently quite unprotected. Having gone some distance, I then met the Duke of Wellington moving at a quick pace, followed by one individual to whom I spoke. His answer was, "Monsieur, je ne parle pas un seul mot d'Anglais." I told him in French the order I had received. He replied, "Le Duc lui-meme a ete voir; il n'y a rein a craindre." I rejoined the Brigade.

The above circumstance has always appeared to me and to those to whom I have related it, a very striking proof of the miraculous escape and providential care of that great man on this eventful day: his Staff, even Orderlies, almost all killed and wounded, the few that remained untouched carrying messages; his only attendant a French Officer, attached to him by Louis XVIII.!!!"

In a later letter Blair said:

"Lord Fitzroy Somerset mentioned to me in town last spring the mistake I had been led into in supposing that the Foreign Officer attending the Duke at the period I referred to was a Frenchman, he being a Sardinian."

Both these letters were written in 1835. Although a single source they seem to indicate both Blair and Somerset had a recollection of this incident, giving it some credence.

With respect to the French. The first phrase is "Sir, I don't speak a single word of English." The second "The Duke himself will see; it does not have anything to fear." I stand to be corrected in the translation as my French is very poor.

Robert le Diable26 Jan 2012 10:30 a.m. PST

"There's nothing to fear" (except, perhaps, "fear itself"). A recently opened packet of the Flashman papers reveals that one of Sir Harry's uncles was "engaged in some commercial enterprise somewhere in the Midlands" at approximately this time.

Mike Petro26 Jan 2012 1:17 p.m. PST

Yes. He was a shrubber actually. Roger, the shrubber. He designs, arranges, and sell shrubbry's.

Supercilius Maximus26 Jan 2012 3:16 p.m. PST


Alan Charlesworth26 Jan 2012 5:54 p.m. PST

It was only a matter of time before the children arrived. After all this is TMP.

Mike Petro27 Jan 2012 12:56 p.m. PST


Corto Maltese13 Feb 2014 3:40 a.m. PST

I'm resurrecting a very old thread here, but I've just come across what I think must be the source for this while researching someting completely different. It's recorded in the diary of the artist Benjamin Robert Haydon, March 24 1843:

Dined at Lupton's with Carew and Clint, & had a very pleasant night. Carew told us a capital story of the Duke. The Duke was at the Marchioness of Downshire's and the Ladies plagued him for some of his stories for some time. He declared all his stories were in print. At last he said, 'Well, I will tell you one that has not." In the middle of the Battle of Waterloo he saw a man in plain clothes riding about on a Cob in the thickest fire. During a temporary absence the Duke beckoned him, & he rode over. He asked him who he was, & what business he had there. He replied he was an Englishman accidentally at Brussels, that he had never seen a fight, & wanted to see one. The Duke told him he was in instant danger of his life, & he said "not more than his Grace," & they parted. But every now and then he sas the Cob Man riding about in the smoke, and at last having no body to send to a regiment, he hollowed for this little fellow, & told him to go up that regiment & order them to charge – giving him some authority the Col. would recognise. Away he galloped, & in a few minutes the Duke saw his orders obeyed. The Duke asked for his card, & found in the evening, when the card fell out of his sash, he lived at Birmingham, & was a button manufacturer! When at Birmingham the Duke enquired of the Firm, & found he was a Traveller, & then in Ireland. In London by request when he returned, he called, & the Duke was happy to see him, & said he had a vacancy in the Mint of 800 a year, where accounts were wanted. The little Cob hero said it wold be exactly the thing, & the Duke installed him.

I will ascertain if the facts are correct. If so, it will [redound] much to his Grace's honour.

What do you think Alan? I'm not sure we'll be able to chase this story further back than this.



arthur181513 Feb 2014 7:38 a.m. PST

That is a very interesting recollection. Thanks for posting.

Of course, much depends on whether Carew was present at the dinner and heard the story from the Duke himself… If not, where/from whom did he get the story?

As you say, it may not be possible to trace this anecdote any further.


Corto Maltese13 Feb 2014 9:31 a.m. PST

Point taken Arthur it's at least second hand when recorded in Haydon's diary!


LORDGHEE13 Feb 2014 10:04 a.m. PST

E mail the mint Historian he might Know as the man work at the mint at 800 pounds.

Captain de Jugar14 Feb 2014 3:37 a.m. PST

"E mail the mint Historian he might Know as the man work at the mint at 800 pounds."

That is probably the least credible point in the whole story. Wellington was well known for his failure to reward anyone who had served him, no matter how deserving.

Mike the Analyst14 Feb 2014 7:43 a.m. PST


Reid appears to give the story some credence based on the fact that Wellesley moved about so much on the battlefield that ADCs retuning to where they had left him would find him gone. Therefore not so much case of losing ADCs as casualties but more a case of them being lost on the battlefield Wellesley whereabouts unknown.

Wellington was certainly mobile on the battlefield but the HQ was based in the large inn in the village of Waterloo. This would allow reports, messages and so on to be received at HQ. It was Wellington's manner of command to seek to be at the key points of the action, something today we might call hands-on micro-management. Unlike Moore and Wolfe before him Wellington did survive the day.

Useful to consider separately the HQ and the C-in-C in any rules about command and control. Also if Wellington had been mortally wounded would this have strengthened the resolve of the British Army in the same way the Royalists at Landsdowne responded to the wounding of Grenville.

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