A Wearside man who fought his way around the world lost his final battle – against death – 114 years ago this week.
“He was known to one and all as ‘Old Charley the Peninsular Veteran’ and earned his living as a hawker in later life,” said historian Sharon Vincent.
“But his real name was Charles McIntosh, a former 71st Regiment of Foot soldier who became one of Sunderland’s best-known 19th century characters.”
Charley, the son of a soldier, was born in 1793, although mystery surrounds the exact circumstances of his birth.
“He was either born in Scotland, on board a ship bound for Scotland or in India,” said Sharon. “What is known is that as soon as he was old enough, he enlisted in the army as a drummer boy.”
Charley was present at the 1803 Battle of Assaye in India, as well as the Capture of the Cape of Good Hope and the 1809 Battle of Corunna in northern Spain.
For years he self-medicated with a mixture of chloroform and laudanum. By the time of his death he was consuming enough each day to kill five people.Local historian Sharon Vincent.
Corunna, one of the engagements of the Peninsular War against the French, always remained vivid in his memory – thanks to the words of commander Sir John Moore.
“Highlanders, remember Egypt!” Sir John told his troops as he led them into battle. Just a few hours later, 16-year-old Charley witnessed his commander’s death.
“That night Charley was hit in the thigh by a musket ball. He fainted from blood loss and, when he came to, found himself next to a French officer,” said Sharon.
“Despite their wounds, the Frenchman drew his pistol, but Charley only had a claymore sword. A fight to the death ensued, which left the drummer boy victorious.”
Charley would go on to see active service under Wellington at Douro, Barrossa and the Siege of Badajoz – where he was thrown from the rampart of the town.
He also fought at the Battle of Toulouse in 1814–though neither the French nor English knew that Napoleon had already abdicated by then – as well as Waterloo.
“Many years later he still owned the sword which he used in battle, and proudly showed it to a Sunderland Echo reporter who came to interview him,” said Sharon.
Charley went on to join the 79th Regiment of Foot in 1828 and army life took him to Canada - where he was struck by lightning during a storm in 1831.
Sadly, his health deteriorated following the incident – and he was pensioned out of the army at 6d a day.
“This pension was disallowed in 1848, after he became involved in the Chartist movement for political reform and took part in several riots,” said Sharon.
“Consequently, he was arrested on a charge of treason and, though he was discharged as innocent, his army pension was never reinstated.”
It was at around this time Charley settled in Sunderland and in 1852, aged 59, he gained employment training the men of the South Durham Militia.
But, as old age crept up on him and his strength sapped away, he turned to hawking in the streets instead – despite being bent double from rheumatism.
“He lived in Robinson Lane, just off Church Street, and scratched a living selling pens and bootlaces out of a box hanging round his neck,” said Sharon.
“He had no pension, and no possessions to sell – not even his medals, which he had given away to a soldier who was killed in 1879 during the Zulu war.
“But seeing his plight, the good people of Sunderland set out to obtain what they could for him - even writing to his old regiments to seek financial aid.”
Stints at the Little Sisters of the Poor and Sunderland Workhouse followed, but the old soldier – by now crippled with pain – hated the strict discipline.
Instead, he moved in with his daughter near Drydale’s Entry, off Low Street. His new home proved much happier – but his aches and pains gradually grew worse.
“For years he self-medicated with a mixture of chloroform and laudanum, eventually building up a tolerance to the drugs and needing more and more,” said Sharon.
“By the time of his death on September 26, 1891, he was consuming enough each day to kill five people – but only at the age of 98 did he tragically overdose.
“It was a sad end for an old soldier who had spent his life fighting – but at least he is still remembered today.”